One of the best parts about writing about sports is listening to people talk about, well... um... sports.
The insight, the nuance, the behind-the-scenes details are far better than anything that ever gets printed or turned into a movie. As someone who sometimes is willing to drive far distances just to hear or conjure up a story, hanging around the press folks at the ballpark is like Shangri-la.
And that's coming from a guy who once drove to Wyoming just because it might be fun to tell the story to people later... well, that and the fact that now I get to say that I've been to Wyoming.
The best part of the drive to Wyoming? It was when I found an old copy of the Lewis and Clark diaries in a used bookstore on Capitol Street and buying chokecherry jelly from a roadside stand in the Big Thompson Canyon.
Weren't Lewis & Clark the ultimate when it came to rolling around the countryside looking for a good story or two? I thought the diaries -- especially an old copy in great condition -- was an apt purchase considering the circumstances.
Also, there is nothing in Wyoming. In some parts all you can see is the ground meet the sky. The landscape wasn't polluted with strip malls, over-commercialization, unsustainable growth or other tackiness related to suburban sprawl.
Anyway, it's always funny to listen to sports scribes talk about their athletic prowess from "the old days." It's funny because a lot of sportswriters were as good at baseball or basketball as James Frey was at detailing his arrest record. Sure, there might have been an "arrest," but then that's just a matter of semantics, isn't it?
Surely the preponderance of B.S. about athletic prowess is not just a phenomenon of the press box. Oh no. Men in general love revisionist history because it always ends the way it should - kind of like a big-budget Hollywood movie. But like Hollywood movies there is always those scenes where one thinks to himself, "There's no way that could have happened... just look at him. He makes Pat Burrell look like Ben Johnson!" when hearing those sports hero stories.
Actually, when hearing some stories I often wonder, "So, were you held back in school and much bigger than your classmates? Is that how you hit all of those home runs after you got popped in the eye with a No. 2 pencil?"
Look, I'm as prone to exaggeration as the next guy, but is the pure, unadulterated truth really the story? Of course not. The point of the story is the story. This isn't journalism, it's B.S.!
Be that as it is, I brought up my days as a really, really, really (really, really) poor hitter during high school. The fact is that I was such a bad hitter that I just decided that I would stop wasting everyone's time in waiting for my three strikes by bunting every time I went to the plate. Though I was told it was just as easy to hit a ball as it was to catch one, I could never make threatening contact with a full cut. However, if I squared around to bunt I could make the ball go where I wanted as long as that was a few feet in front of home plate, not past the pitchers' mound and on either the first-base or third-base lines.
My bunting got to the point that one of my teammates came up to me after a game and asked: "Why does the coach keep giving you the bunt signal?"
"No one gave me the bunt signal," I answered. "We have a bunt signal?"
By that point I had stopped looking down the third-base line at the coach, though during one point I remember him yelling, "Knock the cover off it, Johnny!" with a few claps after it was established that I was deep into the throes of my "Bunt Period."
The reason why my poor high school hitting ability came up pertained to Ryan Howard and, no, it had nothing to do with bunting. Though I'm sure Ryan Howard never looked down the third-base line to get the bunt signal, either, I doubt he ever needed to drop one down.
But Ryan Howard might have made a mistake by swinging (and hitting) the first pitch from Edison Volquez in the Phillies last loss (last week!). With the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning of the 2-0 defeat, Howard harmlessly popped out to left field to end the Phillies' threat. Strangely, Howard swung at the first pitch even though Volquez had walked Shane Victorino and plunked Chase Utley on the foot as the immediate preceding hitters. In other words, it appeared as if Volquez - the National League's top pitcher with a 9-2 record, 1.56 ERA and 96 strikeouts - were about to unravel.
Rather than allow Volquez to throw a pitch or two or even to make a mistake, Howard took a big cut and helped the young pitcher out of the jam. As a result, Volquez settled down and the Phillies got just two more base runners in the final four innings.
So that brings us to the conversation about hitting. During the elevator ride back to the press box after the post-mortem in the clubhouse, Howard's pivotal at-bat was discussed in a silly and unrealistic manner used to poke fun at an exaggerate the situation. By swinging at that first pitch Howard was the antithesis of the "Money Ball" player who was afraid that other players would make fun of him for "looking to walk."
After a few more seconds of silliness, I jumped in with the idea that I was a "Money Ball player before Money Ball even existed."
"I was always looking to walk. I was a looker," I said. "People yelled that at me all the time and the truth is I didn't even try to make it look good. Someone could have placed the ball on a tee and I would have taken it."
Then I mimicked my high-school batting stance by holding an imaginary bat as if it were a light saber that suddenly went on without warning. As the imaginary pitch approached, I cowered as if being attacked by a grizzly bear.
But after the pitch safely passed, I celebrated.
OK, it wasn't that bad, but it may as well have been.
And it's a little more interesting than saying, "I hit .273 my senior year. In a game against Hempfield I went 2-for-4 with a double and scored a run. I also made a running catch in foul ground, but we lost, 6-3. We got two on in the seventh but couldn't push any across."
Besides, in backyard wiffle ball there were few at my level. In that sport I'd make Ryan Howard look like Pat Burrell.
The one thing I was pretty good at during school sports was running. And by running I don't mean anaerobic capabilities or endurance, though I'm pretty good at those, too. Truth is, I'm probably the best distance runner of any of the mainstream sports sportswriters, but that's not saying much. Actually it's kind of like saying Brad Pitt is a better looking dude than Ernest Borgnine.
What I mean by running is that during the rare instances where I took the court or field I ran. When it was time to come off the field/court, I also ran. When I bunted one fair, I ran all out to first and if I ever walked and got to first, I ran as hard as possible to second, third or home. Somewhere along the line I was told that to do anything other than to run on the field was a sacrilege. Walking or jogging was never permitted - ever. You walked or jogged only when you were hurt, otherwise, you ran or you came out of the game.
Maybe the reason why I ran all the freaking time was because I didn't want to give anyone more excuses to take me out of the game. Playing time was scarce enough as it was so maybe I figured I wasn't going to waste it by not trying.
Watch Scott Rolen, Chase Utley or Pat Burrell - they run on and off the field, too. They don't lope or jog... they run.
When it comes to effort, those guys aren't kidding around - ever.
Just the same, I doubt Jimmy Rollins kids around when it comes to effort, too. However, unlike other players, Rollins sometimes worries about style points. The weird thing about style is that it sometimes makes perfectly good things look bad.
At least that was the case for Rollins last week when he dropped his head after a harmless pop up and casually rolled to first in anticipation of the out.
But because he wasn't hustling and had his head down, Rollins couldn't make it to second base when the pop fly was dropped by shortstop Paul Janish. After the half inning ended, manager Charlie Manuel rightly assumed the lack of hustle meant that Rollins needed a breather and sent him to the bench.
Here's the thing about Rollins - he's won games for the Phillies because of his hustle. In fact, his hustle and quickness have kept him out of trouble in a lot of instances. One, of course, was when he won a game by "stealing" home against the Cubs when he faked out the catcher by running hard toward the plate before hitting the brakes as if he were going to change direction and go back to third. When he got the catcher to fall for the fake and throw the ball to the third baseman, Rollins quickly changed direction again and sprinted home to score the winning run.
It was a move only smart, hustling players make.
The one where he didn't hustle to first base wasn't.
"It's my fault," Rollins said. "I can't get mad at him. That's like breaking the law and getting mad when the police show up. You can't do that."
Here's the thing about that, though ... if any other player did what Rollins failed to do, Manuel probably wouldn't have come down on him as hard. Manuel knew that his message would resonate more if he punished Rollins, the league's reigning MVP. Manuel also knew that Rollins wasn't going to overreact and that he was smart enough to understand the message the manager was sending not just to his MVP, but also the entire team.
You guys haven't won anything yet.
Manuel has been around long enough to know that sometimes even the best teams get complacent. And sometimes even those really good teams have a tough time shaking out of the doldrums when the games really mater.
So with the Phillies on the verge of taking three out of four from the Reds with a big, nine-game road trip looming, Manuel sent his streaking, first-place club a little love letter that they are all accountable and that there is no time to take the foot off the accelerator.
Rollins got it immediately.
"With this team you don't get away with anything anyway, but he's the manager and that's what he's supposed to do when a player isn't hustling," Rollins said. "He has to take the initiative to make sure you play the game the right way."
The message seems to have been received loud and clear. When Rollins was "benched," the Phillies went on to finish off the Reds before jetting off to Atlanta where they swept the Braves. With 12 wins their last 14 games and a four-game lead over the Marlins in the NL East, the Phillies could bury the rest of the division with another sweep in Miami.
Maybe if that happens Manuel should toss the post-game spread.