I feel the need to amend. I'd say clarify instead, but to do something like that means to omit a wrong.
And man was I wrong.
Not too long ago - January 30, 2008, to be precise - I wrote a little essay entitled, "2008 Phillies: Playing for 2nd place" and, man, was I ever off on that one.
The basic premise of the story was that Johan Santana was so good that the Mets would not be able to help themselves in winning the NL East. To be sure, Santana is good. Actually, he's very good and probably better than any pitcher the Phillies have. In fact, Santana might very well win 20 games for the Mets this season and in his 11 starts so far, the Mets are 8-3.
In that regard the Santana deal is working out very well for the Mets.
The trouble is that while the Mets have a .727 winning percentage in games started by Santana, they are 18-24 in games started by pitchers not named Johan Santana. Those aren't exactly Steve Carlton in '72 numbers, but who would have guessed that the Mets would have been this bad?
The idea was that Santana would lift up the entire ballclub rather than be the guy doing all the heavy lifting.
So here we are on the last day of May on the cusp of June with July and the All-Star Break not too far away. Behind that, the dog days lurk, but by then will the Mets (or Mutts) have rolled over on their backs to reveal their soft, pink rounded bellies.
That certainly seems where we're headed.
Really, come on... who would have guessed that there would have been such a big carry-over from the most epic collapse in baseball history? Apparently, not me.
So that's the reason for the amendment. Because the Mets, well... stink, and because the Braves might not have all of the pitching or health needed, and because the Marlins aren't quite ready yet, the NL East in 2008 is the Phillies' to lose.
Actually, make that to win.
Yes, it's all rainbows and unicorns here with the Phillies these days. After all, they score runs like a beer league softball team and pitch well enough not to mess up anything. No, that last part isn't the most inspiring type of pitching staff to have, but whatever.
Unless something really wacky occurs, don't expect to see the Phillies give up first place any time this year.
OK. I went out and submitted my first of two All-Star ballots of the year. Typically I will vote once after Memorial Day and once in the final week before the balloting ends for the All-Star Game. So, without comment, here are the votes:
c - Victor Martinez, Indians
1b - Justin Morneau, Twins
2b - Ian Kinsler, Rangers
3b - Joe Crede, White Sox
ss - Derek Jeter - Yankees
of - Josh Hamilton, Rangers
of - Magglio Ordonez, White Sox
of - Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
dh - Hideki Matsui, Yankees
c - Brian McCann, Braves
1b - Lance Berkman, Astros
2b - Chase Utley, Phillies
3b - Chipper Jones, Braves
ss - Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
of - Matt Holliday, Rockies
of - Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals
of - Nate McLouth, Pirates
There it is.
Meanwhile, from the "Gee, we didn't see that coming" file, Lenny Dykstra isn't paying his freelance writers for his new magazine. Yeah. Shocker.
Runs are easy to understand. Actually, scoring runs are the most important thing in baseball. Get more than the other team and you win. Yes, it's so simple.
The thing about runs though is that they have a way of clouding up the memory banks. It actually might be one of those cases where one cannot see the forest save for the trees.
Or something like that.
The point is that beneath an avalanche of runs and, the nice little ancillary benefit called wins, has been some pretty decent pitching outings. In last night's 7-4 victory over the Rockies, Kyle Kendrick turned in a career-high 7 1/3 innings, which ended up being the most important performance of the game. For one thing, Kendrick kept the Rockies from inching back into the game when the Phillies' bats finished scoring for the evening.
For another, Kendrick gave the bullpen a break. After all, the relievers had to turn in five, solid innings to keep the Astros in check last Sunday when ace Cole Hamels turned in an atypical poor outing. As a result, the bats rewarded Chad Durbin and the gang with 15 runs and some not-so strenuous situations on Monday and Tuesday nights.
After the game Kendrick explained how pitching with such a big lead actually helped him last night. While the Phillies scored seven runs before they had even registered five outs, Kendrick said he could relax, settle in and go to work.
"That's big," Kendrick said about the early support. "When you take the mound, it's your job to give your team a chance to win."
More importantly to the guys behind him, Kendrick pitched quickly, threw strikes and got them back into the dugout reasonably quick. According to Jimmy Rollins, those traits are a sign of Kendrick's maturity, which is saying something considering the young right-hander had all of 12 starts above Single-A before joining the Phillies last season.
"He got up there and he pounded the zone, and got ahead of hitters," Rollins said about Kendrick. "He's keeping us in the game. That's all you ever ask of any starting pitcher. He's starting to rediscover his confidence."
Perhaps some of that comes from the tutelage of the sage-like, 45-year-old starter Jamie Moyer. Kendrick regularly chats with Moyer for advice and guidance on pitching and baseball, which makes a lot of sense. After all, Moyer was finishing up his first professional baseball season when Kendrick was born. Plus, there are very few situations that Moyer has not seen - or been directly involved in - during his 22-season Major League career.
So watching Moyer work through his seven-inning stint during the 20-5 victory over the Rockies on Monday might have been the perfect primer for Kendrick.
Though pitching with such a large lead is difficult for some pitchers because they claim they have difficulty directing their focus, Moyer kept the Rockies to just six hits and four runs with just one walk and seven whiffs while the offense piled on the runs.
But falling back to his old mantra of "Keep it simple, stupid," Moyer says his focus was on keeping the Rockies from scoring as many runs as he was given. As long as the Rockies never matched his teammates, Moyer was satisfied.
"I was just trying to stay away from the crooked numbers," Moyer said. "To me it's just about winning, not the numbers."
A good offense is certainly is a nice luxury to have. But then again, what good are scoring runs if there is no one to stop the other team?
When Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins were awarded the MVP in consecutive seasons, it was hardly original. After all the fact is there were different players from the same team that won back-to-back MVP awards lots of times. Actually, it's not even all that uncommon.
But if, say, Chase Utley were to be the MVP for the 2008 season - now that would be something.
Since the Base Ball Writers Association of America wisely started handing out post-season awards, three different players took home MVP honors in consecutive seasons just four times.
In the National League, from 1938 to 1940, the Cincinnati Reds had Ernie Lombardi, Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick were first to pull off the feat. After a Brooklyn Dodger won in 1941, the St. Louis Cardinals' triple threat of Mort Cooper, Stan Musial and Marty Marion did it.
In the American League, Yankees Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Spuds Chandler won the MVP from 1941 to 1943. Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard did it again for the Yanks from 1961 to 1963. Add in Maris' MVP Award from 1960 and that's the only instance where three different players from the same team won four MVP Awards.
Are the Phillies next? Certainly Utley is making a strong case, though, of course, there are 111 games remaining in the season. Actually, though, Utley still leads the National League with 16 homers (on pace for 49) and is fourth with 42 RBIs (128 pace) despite scuffling through a 12-game span where he went 6-for-43(.1395).
In the eight games since snapping his funk, Utley is 10-for-31 with two homers and 11 RBIs. Not bad. Obviously, though, yesterday's six-RBIs outing with three hits inflated the numbers, but that's baseball.
The point is Utley is good. With Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones, Utley is right there.
I love trends. Just love ‘em. I love trends so much that I sometimes even take the time to figure out who is following the so-called conventional wisdom and who is not. Better yet, in my anti-establishment ethos that I have been honing since I first discoveredThe Ramones, The Clash and Minor Threat when I was 13, I knee-jerkily give credence to those who buck the trends no matter what the trend is.
Certainly those that defy conventional wisdom not only have seen the errors of following the herd, but also they are much more hip and astute than those who blindly follow what everyone else is doing.
But more than a "why can't I be different just like everyone else" screed, or a paradoxical "sometimes no style is a style" it's fair to surmise that the non-trendsetters always end up creating the new trend. After all, one day Tito Puente will be dead and you'll tell all your friends, "Oh yeah, I've been listening to him for years and he's fabulous."
And, yes, I know Tito Puente is already dead. However, Tito was clearly one of the best unconventional guest stars on The Simpsons. Don't argue because I'm right.
Anyway, there seems to be a new trend in Major League Baseball, and no, it has nothing to do with bloused pants and high stirrups or substituting sunflower seeds and gummy bears for Skoal and a plug of Red Man. Nope, this anti-trend is more sinister and very well could upset the very balance of power in Major League Baseball...
Or something like that.
Get to the point? OK. Here it is.
According to a column scribbled out by the great Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post, home run totals have dropped in Major League Baseball for the second straight season. According to the column, last spring homer totals were down eight percent, but this spring - in the wake of The Mitchell Report - home run totals have dipped 10.4 percent from last spring.
If the trend holds there will be 4,442 homers hit this year, which is a 17.5 percent drop from 2006.
Certainly there are a lot of reasons for the home run dip that can be assumed by followers of the game and/or meteorology. For one, some claim the cooler early-season temperatures have kept more baseballs in the park. Others suggest that baseball's drug-testing program is finally working. As Orioles' president Andy MacPhail told Boswell:
"A 'cold spring' doesn't account for an almost 20 percent drop in home runs in two years," MacPhail said. "It's foolish not to think there's some correlation to more drug testing and all the [legal] attention [on steroids]. There are still people out there trying to cheat. There will always be people who try to get around the rules one way or another. But there are not as many now."
More interestingly, Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire told Boswell that he has noticed a difference in the shape and size of the ballplayers around the league.
"Just say that guys look like ballplayers again, like they looked when I was growing up, not like musclemen," said St. Claire.
But before this descends into an essay about Bud Selig's drug policy and the cleaning up of the national pastime, let's take a gander at those who are bucking the trend.
Ladies and gentleman, the rebels of MLB, the Philadelphia Phillies...
So far, the Phillies have launched 71 home runs, which is the most in all of baseball. The Marlins are second with 66 and the Rangers are third with 60.
Yes, the Phillies have out-homered all American League teams by a substantial margin.
Of course part of that has to do with the fact that the Phillies play in the friendliest hitting park in all of baseball. After all, the Phillies have blasted 38 homers in 24 home games. However, the 33 road homers also lead the Majors in that sub-category.
But more telling is the fact that the Phillies hit just 56 home runs through April and May of the 2007 season. With a full week to go in the month, the Phillies will have quite a substantial increase in the power totals from a year ago.
More interesting is another trend - the Phillies have three players on pace to crush 40 homers.
When's the last time three Phillies hit at least 40 homers in a season?
Uh, how about never. In fact, only six different guys have the franchise's 11 40-homer seasons. Four of those have come since 2003. Actually, last season was just the second time in team history that three players hit at least 30 homers in a season.
So while the trends shift one way, the Phillies go another.
How punk rock is that?
More: Tom Boswell - "There's Something in the Air Other than the Ball Headed for the Fence" Yes, discovered. Just like Columbus "discovered" the Americas. Yeah, like they wouldn't have found that anyway.
Mitch says, "Yo," instead of "Dude." Lenny said, "Dude." So did the guy in a beer commercial.
Either way, Mitch appears to have found his calling... not a bad Philly accent for a dude from Texas.
I have a theory that if you need someone like Ryan Howard or Chase Utley to say something insightful to make or break your story, you are, indeed, a [bleepy] writer.
It's not a well-thought out theory or one that I've ever really tested in a controlled environment. Truth be told and based on my observations from going into the Phillies clubhouse and hanging around the team for the better part of the last nine seasons, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are the least interesting ballplayers I have ever seen address a group of people about their profession.
The right side of the Phillies' offense has nothing to say to the press about baseball.
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley probably will go down as the most prolific hitters in Philadelphia baseball history, and are clearly two of the most exciting players in the game right now. But, you know, just don't ask them about it.
When told that the President of the United States of America said that Utley would be the first player he would select if he were putting together a baseball team, Utley said: "That's a nice compliment to have. It's kind of cool."
From Jerry Crasnick in the latest edition of ESPN the Magazine in a story on how Utley has established himself as a bona fide hitting threat at the plate:
The one skill Utley has yet to master is self-promotion. He relies on monotonal cliché-speak when reporters approach for insights into his game. His approach brings to mind the Zen of Greg Maddux, who goes out of his way to be dull to avoid providing glimpses into his baseball soul. In Utley's world, success is almost solely a reflection of hard work. That's his story, and he's sticking to it. "The more you practice, the better," he says. "The more at-bats you have and pitches you see, and the more ground balls you take and game situations you're in, the more comfortable you get."
OK. But, there are a few problems in that short paragraph. Sure, Utley may (indirectly) invoke the "Zen of Maddux," but the stories of Greg Maddux's wacky personality are legion and probably not for re-telling where innocent ears (and eyes) lurk.
What's more, Utley's quote about the more one practices equates to the amount of success one has is, frankly, condescending. For starters, Utley is ignoring the importance of talent all while suggesting that players who haven't had the same success as him yet have been identified with better "tools" only need to work harder. Of course he cites the traditional notion of hard work because Utley has been identified as a "baseball rat," "dirtball," and "hard worker." The truth is that I know for a fact that Jimmy Rollins is a hard worker and a student of the game. Why isn't he ever described that way?
Better yet, there isn't a single player in the Major Leagues who simply gets by on talent.
Everybody works hard just like everyone has talent. To that regard, there has to be something more to players like Utley and Howard and they just aren't too keen on allowing anyone to see it.
As Bobby Brown once astutely pointed out, that's their prerogative.
To be fair, public speaking is not for everyone. Frankly, it can be unnerving at times. The truth is that the few times in which I have actually appeared on television I was slightly nervous until I told myself that if they are putting me on TV the producers probably are not expecting a ratings bonanza. From that point on it was if I was simply speaking to another inanimate object, only this one beamed my head out to a regional cable TV audience... or whatever there was of one.
However, when it comes to being a professional athlete these days, self-analysis and deconstruction is part of the job. No, we're not asking for a stand-up routine or even something so insightful that we have to ponder it on the long drive home - after all, it's just baseball and sports. How complicated can it be?
This criticism isn't just for Utley and Howard, but also folks like Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb and perhaps 50 percent of the athletes making money in Philadelphia. The main criticism isn't what they say, but how they say it. Hey, no one is expecting Utley or Howard to be insightful, just engaged in the process.
Again, I'm not saying Howard and Utley aren't interesting people. I'm just saying that I don't know if they are. Perhaps that's because when it comes to talking about baseball they offer no insight, no nuance and no depth. If given the choice between talking to the press about baseball and having a nail driven into their head, Howard, Utley (and many others on the team) would take the nail.
I just don't get that. How can that make sense? If I were a baseball player and were as passionate about the game as nearly every baseball player says they are, you would not be able to shut me up. I'd put a lectern in front of my locker and give sermons from up high. I'd drive everyone crazy talking about baseball, my workouts, the other players, the shape of the ball, the grain of the wood on the bats, the hue of the ivy growing on the batter's eye in center field, the fit of the uniforms, the clubhouse spread, the water pressure in the shower, the temperature of the whirlpool last Tuesday in the visitors' clubhouse in Nationals Park... I'd talk about everything.
Go ahead and ask me an innocuous question about running and marathoning... and then be prepared to sit quietly for at least 30 minutes while I wax on and ramble off into one tangent or another.
So that's what I don't get - how can a baseball player not want to talk about baseball?
Actually, the better question is why does anyone care? Are insights from professional athletes so vital to the national discourse? I certainly hope not. But in the proliferation of the celebrity culture, athletes need not apply. In 2008 there is no difference between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard than there is between George Clooney and Denzel Washington. And, in an odd bit of irony, athletes are being chided for not speaking out on issues as well as for their general verbosity, while movie stars are ripped for speaking out too much.
As if such a thing was possible.
Nevertheless, the real reason for the long-winded essay and knee-jerk observations is because of the latest from former Sports Illustrated writer Pat Jordan, who detailed the good old days of sports writing in a piece for Slate Magazine. Even with the proliferation of all media fans and writers have even less depth and nuance from the athletes. At least that's what Jordan has observed in his 40 years in the business.
Read the story from Jordan. It's good.
From my end, I can only relate writing about mainstream professional athletes in comparison to writing about politicians and business leaders from a decade ago. Back then the subjects of my stories wanted to be partners in what I wrote. Not only did they want a say in what information I used and how I used it, but also they wanted full control of the message. They parsed everything and nit-picked everything including something as trite as the use of a comma or semi-colon in the copy.
To say most folks were engaged in the process didn't cover it. They wanted minutes on the process. They wanted sample paragraphs and to be alerted when the story went to press.
Conversely, athletes don't care about any of it. Strangely, I think most professional baseball players believe that the guy holding the camera to the guy with the microphone to the guy with a pen and a pad all work for the same TV station. They simply don't care enough to differentiate between writers, let alone the scribes and TV reporters.
As I once explained to someone working in a small-town newspaper about the differences between covering the news in a place like Lancaster and covering the Philadelphia Phillies: "The guy you write about in Lancaster might cut out the story and hang it on his wall or put it in a scrapbook. It's meaningful to him.
"But Travis Lee doesn't give a [bleep]."
For that matter, neither do most ballplayers...
More: "Josh Beckett Won't Return My Phone Calls" by Pat Jordan (Slate)
WASHINGTON - According to the dusty old archives stashed back in the vaults at Nationals Park, Ryan Howard's home run in the fifth inning of yesterday's 12-2 victory over the Nats was not only the first ball to reach the upper deck at the stadium, but also it was the longest fair ball ever struck in The District's Southeast quadrant.
Apparently the homer went 441 feet. That's like Tiger Woods taking a three-quarters swing with a 9-iron.
Anyway, here's Howard's bomb:
It should be noted that there is no happier room in the country than a big-league clubhouse following a win on the road just before they leave to go to another city. The Philadelphia ballclub was downright giddy after pasting the Washington Nine for 12 runs last night. Jimmy Rollins even interjected into Shane Victorino's post-game deconstruction of his 3-for-5 performance (double, HR, 3 runs, 2 RBIs) with some members of the local press.
"Anything Ryan can do, I can do," Jimmy said, mimicking Victorino. "I hit a double, he hits a double..."
"I hit a home run," Rollins laughed, still imitating his teammate "but he hits a BOMB!"
WASHINGTON - One of the neat things about this city is that sports really aren't all that important. Oh sure, Washingtonians love their teams - especially the Redskins - but what drives the news and the talk here is the industry.
In D.C. it's all about the government.
Sports seem to be nothing more than a pleasant diversion unlike in Philadelphia where it is everything. In Philadelphia the athletes just don't play for the local teams, they represent us.
It's definitely unique in that way.
D.C. is unique, too. Even though Nationals Park is barely a month old, the Nats rate 17th in the Majors in attendance and 13th in the National League. Usually it takes a year for teams with a new ballpark to see the business at the turnstiles wane, but it's happening right away here in The District.
But the power structure is different here than it is in Philly. The jocks don't have the Q-rating - the folks with the power do.
Nevertheless, I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why the attendance has been so low here. For one, the Nationals aren't very good. At 20-27 they are in last place in the NL East. Plus, aside from Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson, the fans don't have too many players to rally behind.
Additionally, this is a presidential election year. That's like the biggest thing they do in these parts, so people are focused on it all day long. Couple that with the fact that Congress (and school) is still in session and our representatives are busy trying to make laws and stuff and it's easy to understand why the last-place Nats kind of fall between the cracks.
Yet before he went to work trying to override a presidential veto of his farm bill and dive into his work as the chairman of the senate budget committee, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) took the time to hang around with one of his constituents this afternoon.
Chris Coste, the Phillies catcher from Fargo, N.D., spent time with Conrad in his Hart Building office, talked some baseball, signed copies of his autobiography and then had lunch in the U.S. Capitol building. There, Coste and some of the hangers-on from the Phillies enjoyed the senate dining room's famous bean soup and also chatted with Democratic Pennsylvania senator Robert P. Casey Jr.
According to reports, a good time was had by all. Plus, the Phillies' group was quite impressed with Sen. Conrad's baseball knowledge.
Meanwhile, Coste found himself in the lineup against Nats' lefty Matt Chico tonight. Actually, Coste has been in the lineup more than "regular" catcher Carlos Ruiz lately. One reason for that could be that Coste hit .438 (7-for-16) during the last homestand.
However, the Phillies are 17-11 in games started by Ruiz this season.
WASHINGTON - Washington, D.C. is an industry town. And in most industry towns, the matters of business are all encompassing. Generally, the folks who work in The District are on the clock 24/7 even when Congress is not in session and the Congressmen and their staffs are back in their home districts.
Of course, this year is different. The Industry here in Washington is diving into its quadrennial pageant complete with costumes and hype and everything else that goes with the thing called a presidential election. As a result they force the rest of us to follow along, too, which is good. Who doesn't want to understand and participate in the nation's sovereignty?
Because Congress is busy at the work of making laws and whatnot just a short little drive up Capitol Street from the brand, spanking new Nationals Park, and because the candidates for president are positioning themselves just so, big crowds have been few and far between for Nats' games this season. Last night the announced attendance was a little more than 25,000, which is below the season average of 28,983. That average is 17th in Major League Baseball (better than Baltimore) and is higher than only three teams in the National League (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Florida).
If you build it and bilk the taxpaying citizens of The District, they will come?
Nope, not likely.
Anyway, one of the more noticeable traits of the new taxpayer-funded ballpark in Washington is the open space. In the left-field portico, the corridors and even on the streets circling the park, the plazas are wide and open. That's nice. It also mirrors Pierre Charles L'Enfant's and Andrew Ellicott's vision of The District with its wide avenues, open spaces and parklands, and low buildings that don't suffocate the city and its landmarks.
The view of the city from left field with the monuments along The Mall with the Capitol as an anchor is as good as it gets and is a stark reminder of exactly where you are.
Yet a good indicator at how encompassing the industry is in D.C. was pretty evident within seconds of walking into the new Nationals Park. For instance, in the spacious visitors' clubhouse one of the half dozen or so high-definition televisions hanging from the ceiling was tuned to Chris Matthews' "Hard Ball."
Nope, that's not a show about baseball.
More telling, sadly (or not depending upon one's perspective, I guess), was that the largest advertisement visible on the outfield fence was one from Exxon/Mobil. There are a couple of D.C. axioms that explain a lot. One explains the only ways in which a political career can be destroyed, such as "being caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl."
The other established truth is that in order to find the basis of something, one must "follow the money."
For now there is no corporate naming rights slapped on Nationals Park, which is refreshing and, frankly, awesome. But is it just a matter of time until the Nats games are played at Exxon/Mobil Field?
That would suck.
Anyway, my knee-jerk reaction o the park was that it was "flavorless." I was wrong. It's quintessentially D.C. based on some of the reasons listed above. Plus, it's really easy to get to and drive away from - 295 is right there. It's kind of like the South Philadelphia sports complex in that regard, only there is no Schuylkill Expressway to fight with and there is more to do in Washington before and after the games and when the team is in the off-season for that matter.
However, Nats Park cribbed some of the ideas from Citizens Bank Park with the local fooderies selling the concessions. Ben's Chili Bowl, Five Guys Burgers and Hard Times Café have stands, which is like Tony Luke's and Chickie's & Pete's at CBP.
In a nutshell, Nationals Park is a good place to watch a game. It's also just another place to work. Better yet, it's easier to get to than Philly.
Otherwise, the Phillies haven't hit as many home runs in D.C. Actually, the Phillies haven't done a whole lot of hitting, period, lately. Yesterday's loss to extend the season-worst losing skid to three games was exacerbated by the team's inability to hit with runners in scoring position when they went 0-for-12.
Silver lining time: the team might not be all that bad if it loses three games for the first time on May 19.
Anyway, for more on Nationals Park, check out the primer in The Washington Post. They have a lot of good stuff there.