June 26, 2007

Cranes Over Shea and the Mets

Cranes and concrete towers rise beyond the outfield walls at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium in Queens. They are harbingers of the team’s new stadium, Citi Field, which is scheduled to open for the 2009 season.

The new stadium will have all of the features we have come to expect from ballparks in the post-Camden Yards construction-era: Wide concourses, luxury boxes, clear sight lines, tradition evocative architecture, asymmetrical outfield, and seating for a baseball-friendly 45,000.

Renderings for Citi Field can be seen on the Mets’ website at www.mets.com and they are very cool. The primary entrance is to mimic the exterior of Ebbets Field, the home to the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 until their move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

Shea Stadium was built as a consequence of the Dodgers’ move west, as well as that of the New York Giants, who accompanied the Dodgers to California for the 1958 season.

The Dodgers experienced great success in the late-1940s and 1950s. Ebbets Field held 32,000 and owner Walter O’Mally judged the club to have outgrown the then 40-year old park. The Giants played at the Polo Grounds, built in 1891 and renovated in 1911. The Bronx construction of Yankee Stadium in 1923 displaced the Polo Grounds as New York’s choice for marquee sporting events. So in 1957, the Dodgers and Giants moved west, breaking hearts as Ken Burns traces in “Inning 7: The Capital of Baseball”), in his 1994 nine-part documentary Baseball.

The departure of the Dodgers and Giants left the National League without a franchise in New York City, the largest U.S. market both in 1958 and today in 2007. The National League and American League each had 8 teams each in 1958. While franchise moves had brought major league baseball to Milwaukee, Baltimore, Kansas City, and California, additional cities were ready to play host to major league organizations.

The National League had had eight teams since 1901. The American League was the same. But American cities had grown since 1901 and the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 increased the size of the available player pool.

In 1958, New York City attorney William Shea proposed the creation of a third league, the Continental League. Shea named former Dodgers president Branch Rickey as chief-executive. In 1959 they announced the placement of franchises in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and New York. This would return major league baseball to New York City.

Rather than admit competition, the American League expanded to Minnesota and Los Angeles in 1961. The National League placed two new teams in 1962, one in Houston and the other in New York. While these commitments killed the Continental League, it fulfilled Shea’s goal of returning National League baseball to New York. When the city built its new multipurpose stadium in Flushing next to the site of the World’s Fair, it named the stadium in Shea’s honor.

Shea seats 55,000 for baseball. Seating wraps in a circle from left-field around to the symmetrical spot in right. The stands end along each foul-line like giant cliffs leaving a gaping space beyond the outfield walls.

Shea was a forerunner to the multipurpose stadia built in subsequent years in St Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. All four were unloved for their concrete circular bowls, Astroturf, football capacities, and absence of architectural character. But the seating at St Louis’ Busch Stadium II, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, all wrapped entirely around the field such that when the stadium was full, one felt surrounded on all sides, enveloped by fans. One looked out from one’s seat and saw either more seats or more fans.

Shea was never closed. The original plans left the outfield open such that more stands could be added which would complete the open circle and raise capacity to 90,000. The Mets originally shared Shea with the American Football League’s New York Jets; Yankee Stadium held 67,000 in the 1960s and the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams played the Los Angeles Coliseum which sat over 100,000. 90,000 seats were not unreasonable for the premier sports stadium in New York City.

But the additional seats were never added and the outfield remained open. The space was filled by bleachers in left field, the bullpens, and the huge scoreboard and billboards in right-center.

It is a lot of prime real-estate given over exclusively to a scoreboard, bullpens, and billboards.

As we rode the number 7 subway from 43rd Street out to the ballpark on Sunday afternoon for the Mets game against the Oakland Athletics, I asked my buddy Peter if we would miss Shea. Peter was born a Mets fan in Brooklyn and after tours out of state, lives again in New York. He said he would not. When I returned to work on Monday morning, a coworker asked if I had found the place “a dump”.

Yes, the concourses are narrow. And they were dark even on this gorgeous sunny June day. I gave up looking for a water-fountain and paid $4 for a bottle of Aquafina-brand bottled water. We had little leg-room and the seats were narrow. The scoreboard is a (relative) antique and the replay monitor small by contemporary major league standards.

But I thought Shea was kind of cool. The stadium tells the story of the Mets history.

The Mets wear blue in honor of the Dodgers and orange for the Giants. Do you see the NY on the Mets’ cap? It is the same NY worn by the Giants through their final 1957 season. The stadium name picks up the story of the team from the departure of the Dodgers and Giants.

The Mets won the 1969 World Series at Shea in their eighth season of existence. Game Six of the 1986 World Series was at Shea where Mookie Wilson’s grounder to first-base rolled through the legs of the Boston Red Sox’ Bill Buckner. The Mets won Game 7 and the Series at the ballpark the following night.

It was at the stadium on September 21, 2001 where the Mets played their first regular season game after the September 11th attacks. Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves to lift the Mets to a 3-2 victory. Piazza left the team after the 2004 season and he is still a hero to many New York fans, his Mets career defined by this moment.

The Mets will take their franchise history and uniforms to the new ballpark in 2009. But a team’s stadium is the stage and context. The stadium is a piece of the history and as it is part of the history it is part of the brand which is the team’s value-proposition. The stadium’s contribution to the value-proposition is the participation and witness to history. As players come and go, and teams win and lose, the team’s colors and stadium are the constants. They are the testaments to the team’s history.

It is not that teams should not move into new stadiums. It is not that I am against new construction. What I am for is being mindful of what we lose – the price we pay in leaving and razing old ballparks.

Yes, there is an economic-financial debate about financing new stadium construction. This is especially true when public funds are solicited to pay for these sports theaters. The San Francisco Giants demonstrated that such projects can be pursued with private funds.

The Phillies closed Veterans Stadium after the 2003 season. After the last out of the last game, the team brought back retired pitcher Tug McGraw. McGraw was the Phillies’ pitcher who struck out the Kansas City Royals’ Willie Wilson to end the 1980 World Series. It was the Phillies’ first and only World Series championship and had taken place at the ballpark. That night in 1980, McGraw leaped off the mound, his arms extended to the skies, and was mobbed by the team.

Before the Phillies would leave the stadium, they wanted McGraw to recreate his leap so that the fans and team in 2003 could relive this moment one last time. This was where it happened; soon a parking lot would stand here. The renovation of an old park means that such moments maintained in the present,

I find it hard to believe that there are not creative architectural solutions that could have brought solutions like luxury boxes, high-definition video boards, additional office spaces, and wider concourses to Shea. I looked at the area of bullpens and bleachers, scoreboards and fixtures beyond the walls and wondered what could have been done with this space. I wondered how the Mets could have had their new revenue streams, improve fan comforts, to stay at the ballpark and continue playing on the same stage.

A crane is considered auspicious in China and Japan. It is a sign of a bright future. The Mets have outstanding management in general manager Omar Minyana and field manager Willie Randolf. The Mets won on Sunday 10 to 2 behind solid pitching by John Maine and a potent offense.

They have an auspicious future with or without the cranes that peer from the site of the new stadium onto the field of the old. Maybe Shea could have been part of this future as it has been the past.

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June 19, 2007

How the Philadelphia Phillies Came To Wear White Sox

At the north-west corner of 5th and Bainbridge Streets is a restaurant-supply store called John C. Paul’s. It sells all matters of paper, plastic, and aluminum goods, and other mainstays of take-out meals. It has hardwood floors and smells of wet dog. In the window facing 5th St, as it leads to South Street, is a hand-made Phillies booster sign updated daily in magic marker.

On Thursday morning (before the team collapsed against the Tigers), it celebrated the Phils’ 8 to 4 Wednesday win over the Chicago White Sox and the club’s move into a tie for second-place in the National League East, two games behind the first-place New York Mets. The Phillies took themselves four games over .500 with the victory and kept themselves winners of seven of their last ten.

Wednesday’s was a solid win during a day-game at Citizens Bank Park. The weather report had the chance of rain at 60% and it was blustery, almost chilly, up at the top of the stadium where I sat behind third-base. The flags whipped the entire game like it would rain at any moment. The rain held-off and the Phillies held-out for the W.

Beyond the victory, it was a day of baseball soap-opera unique to the current connections between the Phillies and White Sox.

This is unusual given the minimal connection between the clubs in the past couple generations.

Oh, the Phillies sold outfielder and fan favorite Greg Luzinski to the White Sox in March 1981. Luzinski was one of those ball players for whom the creation of the designated hitter was an act of clemency. Luzinski had been a four-team All-Star for the Phillies and had three productive seasons in Chicago before his release after the 1984 campaign.

The Phillies traded outfielder Gary Redus to the White Sox for starting-pitcher Joe Cowley in March 1987. Cowley had pitched a no-hitter for the White Sox in 1986, a game in which he walked 11. Cowley lasted five games for the Phillies in 1987. He recorded a 15.43 ERA and was out of the Major Leagues.

Relief pitcher Bobby Thigpen set the season-record for saves with 57 for the White Sox in 1990; he pitched in 17 games for the 1993 Phillies and recorded his lone Major League at-bat in that stretch.

The White Sox had reached the American League Championship Series in 1983 and 1993 and would have faced the Phillies in the World Series in these years had they been able to beat the Baltimore Orioles in ’83 or the Toronto Blue Jays in ’93.

What else? Uh, there had been Spring Training games when the White Sox trained in Sarasota, Florida between 1960 and 1997. Sarasota is down Route 75 from Clearwater past the Cardinals in St. Petersburg (until 1997) and Pirates in Bradenton.

It is not for the White Sox playing in the American League such that the two teams play only three games every three years. The Phillies are connected to other American League clubs. The Phillies have working relationships with the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Blue Jays because they all hold Spring Training and have their minor-league complexes around Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The Phillies and Orioles have a friendly rivalry due to their geographic proximity. Phillies fans travel to Oriole Park at Camden Yards when the Phillies play there and there are stretches of southeast Pennsylvania and parts of Delaware where loyalties are split between the Phillies to the north and Orioles to the south.

But the White Sox? Yeah, not much until the Phillies had a log-jam at first-base with Ryan Howard and Jim Thome after the 2005 season.

2003 was to be the Phillies last-season at Veterans Stadium. In anticipation of the move into the new ballpark in 2004 and the expected increase in payroll, since-deposed Phillies general-manager Ed Wade went free-agent shopping. The centerpiece of his acquisitions was Thome.

Thome had spent his entire 12-year major league career with Cleveland where he hit between 30 and 50 homeruns a year and had been a centerpiece of the club’s dominance of the American League Central Division between 1995 and 2001.

But Cleveland had slipped to third place in 2002 with a 74 and 88 record and the buzzword in northeast Ohio was “rebuilding”. For Thome, this meant that the team would not pay the highest dollar to keep the then 32-year old at Jacob’s Field.

Enter the Phillies with their newly expanded payroll. It helped that when Thome visited South Philadelphia in the winter of, the construction workers building the new ballpark next to Veterans Stadium, stopped and cheered for Thome as he drove by. It was a blue-collar reception for a blue-collar player and Thome and Philadelphia were hooked on each other.

The Phillied hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day 2003, the last at Veterans Stadium. Thome received the longest ovation during pre-game introductions. In his first official Phillies at-bat, he drove a pitch to the fences. We went nuts – this would be an amazing way to start his Phillies-life. The ball caromed off the wall and we settled ecstatically for the triple. Thome finished the season with 47 homeruns and 131 RBIs. Philadelphia had not seen a slugger like this since Mike Schmidt in the mid-1980s.

In 2005, Thome went down with an injury; he would play only 59 games that season and finish with seven homeruns. Like Wally Pipp being replaced by Lou Gehrig, rookie Ryan Howard filled in by hitting 22 homeruns in 312 at-bats and winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year award.

After the 2005 season, Philadelphia fans questioned how the Phillies would solve their first-base log-jam. They asked if Thome would return healthy in 2006 and whether Howard would blossom in a full-season. The Phillies had tried Howard in the outfield in practice, an experiment that lasted, maybe 48-hours. Thome was long past his days of playing third-base.

I met Howard in early November 2005. Mike Lieberthal was then the Phillies’ catcher and fans awaited the end of his contract in 2006. I asked Howard if he could catch. He returned my deadpan question with his response, “I’m a lefty.” “We’ll take it!”, I joked, and we laughed together. The man is huge and built to play first-base or outside linebacker.

On November 25, 2005, the Phils traded Thome to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. Like the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers trading Allen Iverson this past season, it was necessary bittersweet trade of a loved-player.

The trade had the potential to be win-win. The White Sox had just said goodbye to Frank Thomas and wanted Thome’s bat in the lineup. Thome was from Peoria, Illinois, southwest of Chicago and just north of the Illinois capital, Springfield; he was returning home. The Phillies needed a centerfielder and Rowand’s hard-charging play would be welcomed in Broad Street Bullies Philadelphia, and now first was open to Howard.

It worked.

Thome bounced-back to hit 42 homeruns for the 2006 White Sox. Howard hit 58 homeruns for the 2006 Phillies and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. Rowand endeared himself to Phillies fans early in the ’06 season when he ran his face into the centerfield fence at Citizens Bank Park on May 11 against the Mets to make a game-saving catch.

The Phillies finished 2006 a couple-games out of the playoffs and entered the off-season in need of a starting pitcher. Yes, like almost every team in baseball, they wanted pitching. Phillies general-manager Pat Gillick turned to the White Sox and made it happen.

This White Sox series was Thome’s first visit to the Phillies’ home since the trade. He had sat during Monday’s and Tuesday’s game and Wednesday he had the start. This was a homecoming.

Kyle Kendrick started the game for the Phillies. He was making his major league debut, starting in place of injured Freddy Garcia – former White Sock Freddy Garcia.

Last December 6, Gillick traded Phillies pitchers Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez to the White Sox for Garcia. Garcia had won 17 games for Chicago in 2006 and was the winning pitcher in game four of the 2005 World Series when he threw seven shut-out innings against the Houston Astros giving up only four hits.

On December 8, ESPN.com ran the Associated Press’ article, “White Sox trade Garcia to Phillies for Floyd” and quoted Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle as saying, "[Garcia]'s had to pitch when it's on the line. He's had the opportunity to do things you want a pitcher to be able to do. He's going to fit nicely into our rotation and we feel like he's a guy that's going to be able to give us innings. He's a proven winner."

"Proven winner", as in past-tense.

Garcia was struggling with the Phillies this season when he left June 8’s game in Kansas City after 1 2/3-innings. In 11 starts, he has an ERA of 5.90 and a batting-average-against of .318. He might now be out for the season with a shredded-shoulder. His one win was not what Philadelphia had in mind.

The loss of Garcia was tough to take because he follows a string of would-be All-Star pitchers who flopped in Philly.

The Phillies acquired Andy Ashby in November 1999 for three prospects. Ashby had pitched 206 innings for the 1999 Padres and won 14 games. He was to be the number-two pitcher behind ace Curt Schilling. Ashby went 4 and 7 in 16 starts for the Phillies before they dumped him to the Atlanta Braves on July 12 of that season.

In October 2002, the Phillies signed Terry Adams to start for them in 2003. Adams had been a reliever with the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1995 but had made 22 starts for Los Angeles in 2002 and finished the season with a 12 and 8 record. Adams made it through 19 starts for the ’03 Phillies before they returned him to the bullpen.

It was Garcia’s turn to start on Wednesday against his former team. Instead, Garcia was in Alabama obtaining a second opinion on his shoulder. In his place, the Phillies started Kendrick. Kendrick’s lanky presence on the mound was a reminder of Garcia’s bust.

This game was the third and last of the three-game mid-week series. Thome has been the White Sox’ designated-hitter and with the pitcher batting at the National League park, he had sat out Monday’s and Tuesday’s games. He was penciled in to start at first on Wednesday. Thome batted third and came to the plate for the first-time in the top of the first.

The fans gave him a warm and extended ovation. It reminded me of the reception that we gave Ozzie Smith during the 1996 All-Star Game held in Philadelphia. Ozzie had announced he would retire after the ’96 season and this was his final All-Star Game. Like Ozzie, Thome stepped out of the batters-box and doffed his batting helmet in appreciation. Both Thome and the fans showed a lot of class.

I was sitting next to a buddy of mine behind third-base. As we applauded, he grumbled that Thome was great but he had left us with Charlie Manuel as manager.

Manuel had long been a coach in the Cleveland Indians’ farm-system and had replaced Mike Hargrove as manager after the 1999 season. Manuel was fired during the 2002 season and in deference to Thome, the Phillies hired Manuel as a scout in 2004. The Phillies fired fan-favorite Larry Bowa as manager at the end of the 2004 season. The team conducted a drawn-out interview process where they paraded through Philadelphia top managerial candidates. The fans’ choice was Jim Leyland. The Phillies chose Manuel.

On Friday, Marcus Hayes wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News in “Manuel’s Cooler Head Helping Phils Previal”, “Manuel has never been a popular hire in Philadelphia. He followed incendiary icon Larry Bowa. He was chosen over managerial legend Jim Leyland, whose resuscitated Tigers, AL champs under him last season, visit today.”

One on-going criticism of Manuel is that he had never understood the double-switch. The double-switch is used in the National League in the latter innings whereby one replaces a fielder at the same time as a pitcher, but flip-flops the batting order to maximize the innings the pitcher might pitch before he would bat, and the need would arise to pinch-hit for him.

The game was already ripe with the undercurrents of the White Sox-Phillies with Kendrick on the mound and Thome at first-base.

Manuel had given Rowand, the regular centerfielder, the day-off. It was a 1:00 PM start and a privilege of being a veteran player is that one receives periodic rests when afternoon games follow night-games. But Kendrick had gone six-innings in his maiden outing and now there were runners on first and third and one out with the Phils down 3 to 2.

Manuel sent Rowand to hit for Kendrick. Rowand grounded-out to third, the run scored, the game was tied, Kendrick was off the hook for the loss, Rowand had done his job, and Manuel looked pretty good. Even better, Manuel left Rowand in the game in the ninth position and sat Jayson Werth who had started in Rowand’s place. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a double-switch.

One inning later, Rowand made Manuel look like a genius and the White Sox mourn their loss. The Phillies had tacked on an additional run to go ahead 4 to 3 when Rowand came up with the bases loaded. Matt Thornton was now pitching for the White Sox and Rowand sent a shot down the left-field line and over the wall for a grand-slam. This took the Phils ahead by a score of 8 to 3, too much for even Geoff Geary and Yoel Hernandez to cough up. Rowand circled the bases and then we kept cheering and called him out of the dugout for a curtain call.

Which is how Jim Thome made a sweet return to Philadelphia and Kyle Kendrick came to replace Freddy Garcia and how Aaron Rowand was a hero against his old team.

This is how the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are curiously connected these days.

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June 12, 2007

From the Major League Baseball June Draft to the 25-Man Roster

Baseball’s annual draft of amateur players, which took place on Thursday and Friday of last week, is the most removed from current rosters of all of the amateur drafts of the top American professional sports leagues, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and even Major League Soccer.

The NBA’s Portland Trainblazers and Seattle SuperSonics eagerly await selecting Ohio State’s Greg Oden and the University of Texas’ Kevin Durant. Both Durant and Oden are considered franchise players who could single-handedly bring success to the franchise. The NFL’s Cleveland Brown selected Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn with the 22nd pick in April’s football draft; Quinn will compete for playing time this season.

Read ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, the sports pages of the local newspaper, and one does not find pundits grading how MLB clubs did in last week’s draft. I was in Pittsburgh on Thursday night and watched the local news report on the Pirates’ draft. The theme was “signability” which is Major League Baseball short-hand for “agent Scott Boras represents this player and will demand more money than we want to commit to a draft-pick”. The Pirates had passed on Georgia Tech catch Matt Wieters for this reason and chose Clemson pitcher Daniel Moskos.

This particular broadcast questioned the Moskos pick in the context of the Pirates passing on a player for financial reasons. This has nothing to do with Moskos and everything to do with both a team’s desire to work with Boras – the Phillies now shy-away from Boras clients after selecting Boras-client J.D. Drew in the 1997 draft – and Pittsburgh’s deepening frustration with the decisions made by the current ownership group.

It did not help that Moskos is the eighth pitcher that the Bucs have selected with their first-pick since 1998; none of the first seven have yet enjoyed Major League success. But do not blame Moskos for this legacy.

With few exceptions, first and second round selections receive a bit of press in the days after the draft. The Phillies have invited their first-round pick to Veterans Stadium, and now Citizens Bank Park, where they tour the clubhouse, meet the local press, and if they are a hitter, take some batting practice. Then they are shipped off to the low minor leagues and the life of long bus rides and McDonald’s meal money, out of the spotlight.

Sometimes we see these players again in the big leagues. More often than not, they fade from view.

I was curious about the relationship between the draft and whether a player’s selection in the early rounds might say something about the likelihood of his reaching and succeeding on the major league level. But rather than look at past drafts and the future success of the draftees, I looked at two current rosters to see where the players were drafted. I chose the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. As of yesterday, Monday, June 11, each club had the best record in their league.

Each Major League club has a 25-man active roster. These are the players designated as available to play. The list excludes individuals on the Disabled List. For example, Pedro Martinez is excluded from the Mets’ 25-man roster as he recovers on the DL.

This is the Mets’ 25-man roster with players listed by last-name and the round in which they were drafted. Those players drafted in the same round are listed in alphabetical order and not by the order within the round.

Castro 1
Green 1
Heilman 1
Sele 1
Wagner 1
Beltran 2
Glavine 2
Wright 2
Schoenweiss 3
Smith 3
Maine 6
Ledee 16
LaDuca 25
Easley 30
Feliciano 31
Gotay 31
Delgado -
Franco -
Gomez -
Hernandez -
Mota -
Perez -
Reyes -
Sosa -
Valentin -

This list shows that 16 of the 25 players were drafted. The average round in which the 16 drafted players were selected is the 9.75th round. This is weighted of course by LaDuca, Easley, Feliciano, and Gotay being chosen in the 25th through 31st rounds. The median selection round is the 2nd; 11 of these 16 players were taken no lower than pitcher John Maine in the sixth round.

Nine players were not drafted. This is due to the structure of the June amateur draft which applies only to American and Candian players as well as those who came through American and Canadian high schools, junior colleges, and four-year colleges and universities. Amateur players in the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Valenzuela, Cuba, and so forth are not subject to the draft. Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, and Jose Reyes were open to be signed by any team in the Major Leagues.

This is the Red Sox’ 25-man roster with players listed by last-name and the round in which they were drafted. Again, those players drafted in the same round are listed in alphabetical order and not by the order within the round.

Beckett 1
Drew 1
Ramirez 1
Snyder 1
Varitek 1
Pedroia 2
Schilling 2
Cora 3
Lopez 4
Papelbon 4
Mirabelli 5
Timlin 5
Crisp 7
Wakefield 8
Youkilis 8
Pineiro 12
Hinske 17
Lowell 20
Donnelly 27
Lugo 28
Matsuzaka -
Okajima -
Ortiz -
Pena -
Tavarez -

The Red Sox have 20 players who were selected in the June draft. These players were taken, on average, in the 7.85th round. The median round of selection is the 4th with 15 of the 20 having been taken no lower than Kevin Youkilis and Tim Wakefield in the 8th.

David Ortiz was signed out of the Dominican Republic. The Red Sox bid on the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka before signing him.

This is no academic study and there are initial trends. The first, second, and third rounds yield more Major League-caliber talent than the later rounds. That being said, there is talent to be had. Paul La Duca is no slouch at catcher and he was taken in the 25th round. 165 other players were taken before the Red Sox selected Wade Boggs.

Given the importance of the amateur draft, we might also note how it does not apply to Latin American players. Pedro Martinez was one of the top pitchers of the late 1990s and early 2000s and David Ortiz is one of the top hitters today. We do not see their likeness in the draft and yet they compose one-third of the Mets’ first-place roster.

A rough estimate would suggest that a third of an active 25-man roster is made of players drafted within the first four or so rounds; one-third are players drafted between rounds four and 30; one-third are non-drafted players, primarily those signed out of Latin America.

June 05, 2007

Phillies Add Cassandra to Struggling Bullpen

The Phillies played the final game of their three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Wednesday night. This was the game for which Jamie Moyer started for the Phillies and Randy Johnson for Arizona; the media noted that their combined age was the highest ever of two starters.

The game ended with Ryan Howard pinch-hitting, two-outs, and the Phillies down by a run with speedy Michael Bourn on second-base. Howard had sat this game out, going easy on his hamstring, and we in the crowd chanted “M-V-P” as Howard swung for a game-ending homerun. Howard smacked a line-out to second which ended the game when Bourn was doubled-off the base.

The final 4 to 3 score shows the Phillies to have lost by one, and suggests it to have been a close game. It was not close. The game did highlight the talent of the club, the very presence of which causes the limitations to be even more frustrating.

The Phillies had returned home to Citizens Bank Park on Monday night, May 28, after sweeping the three-game weekend road series against the Atlanta Braves. This was an important sweep beyond the Phillies' three wins. It was against the Braves and the Phillies moved two-games above .500 for the first time this season.

The Braves have been the best of the National League since 1991. They won their division every year between 1991 and 2005 except for 1994. Some fault them for winning the National League Championship Series only six times in this 14 year-run and the World Series only once. I do not. I will take 90 to 100 wins a season every year over 70 to 80. But then again I am not George Steinbrenner. Even in second-place in the National League’s East Division, after such a long run, the Braves are a team to beat. The Phillies were in third-place, and to sweep the Braves, the team at whose backs the Phils were peering in the standings, was exciting.

The Phillies opened the 2007 season with high expectations: Howard was the reigning National League Most Valuable Player; second-baseman Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins had developed into All-Star players, each with his own thirty-plus game hitting streak that brought national media exposure; the Phillies had six legitimate starting pitchers.

Then the season came and the Phillies tripped and by the end of day four, they were 0 for the season. On April 20, the Phillies were 4 and 11. Feh. But returning to Philadelphia from Atlanta last Sunday night, the Phillies were two-games over .500, gaining on second-place, and with the Diamondbacks coming to town and the San Francisco Giants behind them, the Phils had a chance to pick up momentum. As I tell myself looking at my fantasy baseball team, it is only the end of May – now early June. There is still a lot of baseball left.

But something happened to the Phillies on the way to the forum.

Freddie Garcia started for the Phils in the opener against Arizona. He gave up three early runs, settled down, and pitched eight innings registering nine strikeouts. This is not a bad outing. After eight, the Phils were down 3 to 1. It is a deficit and two runs are not impossible to make-up.

Ryan Madson came in to pitch the ninth and quickly secured two outs. But then he walked Tony Clark and two doubles later, the Phillies were down 5 to 1. Two runs are doable; four runs are difficult.

The Phillies did three. Greg Dobbs pinch-hit a three-run homerun which brought the Phillies to 5 to 4. Had Madson held the lead, the Phillies would have won. Had Madson given up only one-run, the Phils could have been tied. “Would-haves” and “could-haves” and the Phillies still lost.

I need to read-up on the Official Rules of Baseball. I do not understand how Garcia was credited with the official loss and not Madson.

Tuesday night was similar.

Phillies starting pitcher Jon Lieber gave up five runs in the second inning and Arizona was ahead. The Phils scored one in the home second and two more in their seventh. Entering the eighth inning, it was a 5 to 3 ballgame. Again, two runs are doable.

The Phils brought in Geoff Geary to pitch the eighth. Arizona’s Alberto Callaspo grounded out. Miguel Montero reached on a fielding error and went to second on a wild pitch. Scott Hairston struck out for the second out. But for the second night in a row, the bullpen could not hold it there.

Another Phillies error, a walk, single, hit batsman, and triple later – all of this with two outs – and the Phillies were down 10 to 3. A seven run deficit in the eighth inning in the Major Leagues is pretty bad. The Phillies plated a run in the eighth and again in the ninth for five on the night. By then, the Diamondbacks had 11 and the victory.

Wednesday night was a great game for the first seven innings. Johnson and Moyer pitched like it was 2001. Johnson gave up one hit through six innings; Moyer gave up a game leading-off homerun and then threw shut-out ball through the seventh. Not only was it 1 to 0, but Moyer and Johnson were working fast and going to have us home early from the ballpark.

Moyer retired the first-batter in the Arizona eighth. Eric Byrnes, who had hit the game’s lead-off homer, drove a Moyer pitch deep into left-field and the score was 2 to 0. Again, two runs are doable.

Conor Jackson was the next batter and he smoked a double off the wall in deep left. This was beginning to look like batting practice. Orlando Hudson mercifully flied to right for out number two. We were almost there. So close. Moyer was so very close when Mark Reynolds, the rookie clean-up hitter, drove a pitch into the shrubbery behind the centerfield wall. Two runs are doable; four runs are difficult.

“Look kids, Big Ben!”

I was now ready to beat the crowds and call it a night. My buddy Jake was like – it ‘s only four runs and it’s only the eighth inning – let’s stay! I don’t know, I replied. With another late inning deficit, the Phillies are goingt to rally and fall short – I can’t take it.

But we stayed and Aaron Rowand led off the bottom of the ninth by reaching first on a hit-by-pitch. Shane Victorino grounded the ball through Hudson’s open legs at second so that with no outs Rowand was on third and Victorino on second. Rollins, up next, drove the ball to centerfield. Chris Young came six inches from catching it on the fly, Rollins raced to third, two runs scored and the score was 4 to 2.

The crowd was on its feet, cheering. Utley came to bat and the girls started screaming. If there was a standard dress for the women in the crowd between the ages of 17 and 25, it was short denim-skirt, flip-flops, and a tight red Phillies t-shirt with UTLEY 26 on the back.

Utley flied out but Pat Burrell singled to bring Rollins home and it was 4 to 3. Bourn pinch-ran for Burrell to create the Hobbesian moment for Howard with two-outs and the tying run half-way around.

Sitting, and then standing in the right-field stands, chanting “MVP” for Howard, I felt a little like Cassandra, the mythic figure who can see the future and do nothing about it. I really wanted Howard to deliver; the Phillies had a chance to tie-it if not win the game.

But the game did not have to have come to this. And even if this game, on this night, had had to come to the Phillies fighting back from a deficit in the ninth, it looked way too similar to Monday night and Tuesday night. Even if Howard had drove-in Bourn and even if the Phillies had won it there in the ninth, or later in extra-innings, this Arizona series had exposed the team’s weaknesses.

The bullpen showed itself to be uneven. The Phillies were and are without Tom Gordon and Brett Myers. Gordon was the closer before going down with an injury. Myers stepped-in and was effective in the role before he succumbed to the disabled-list. The team is now carrying seven relief pitchers. No one has been designated the closer in Myers’ absence. Since no one is the closer, no one is the go-to set-up man, which means that no one is the seventh inning man and onward. Little is defined.

More so, with two on the DL and seven pitchers in the pen, rather than five, there is little disincentive for poor performance. I would like to see the Phillies demote two and create an environment in which the relievers pitch with the back-of-the-mind pressure of the demotion to AAA Ottawa.

The weakness of the bullpen adds pressure to the starting rotation. When the bullpen is unreliable, a manager is less likely to pull a starting pitcher in the sixth or seventh or eighth. Moyer may not have had a high-pitch count in the eighth inning on Wednesday night but it is easy to justify turning the game over to a reliever knowing there is a good chance he will be more effective in his one inning than Moyer after six or seven. After Madson’s work on Monday and Geary’s on Tuesday, Manuel was praying that Moyer could have pitched ten innings.

Seven pitchers in the pen also means there are two fewer hitters on the bench. The Phillies have 13 non-pitchers. Eight start and the second-catcher is not used as a substitute, just in case. This leaves four players for pinch-hitting and defense. Two pinch-hitters and a defensive replacement later, and the Phillies have a good shot at entering extra-innings with one position player available to pinch hit. The Phillies used pitcher Cole Hamels as a pinch-hitter in a game earlier this season. Huh?!

I really like the core of players that the Phillies have. Rollins, Utley, Howard, Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz are young and could have long careers with the club. Bourn could be a starting player. This is not a bad team and I took issue with a friend when he compared them to the Cubs this season. I mean, that’s below the belt! It is not like Phillies players are throwing-down fists in the home dugout.

The Phillies are playing like a .500 club, winning like the collection of All-Stars that they can be half the time and dropping the other half in a flurry of deficits and lost opportunities.

Cassandra is a Phillies fan (and she wears a red Phillies Chase Utley t-shirt).