Friday, September 28, 2007


Jimmy Rollins is not just
the best shortstop in the NL,
he deserves to be the MVP

159 games into the major league baseball season – with just three days remaining – and the Philadelphia Phillies finally are tied for first place in the National League East. For the first time all year. Perhaps they will make it to this year’s play-offs, something they have not done once since I arrived here in 1995, or perhaps not. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, the 2007 Phillies represent one of the strangest & most fascinating experiments in the history of the game.

Baseball & poetry have a long, complementary history in the United States. Baseball is almost the official sport of poets, dating back at least to the writing of William Carlos Williams, if not to Whitman. Jack Spicer’s baseball poems are among his very best, and even Tom Clark has written eloquently of the late Roberto Clemente. Baseball’s sense of tradition for tradition’s sake even closely rhymes with the impulses of the School of Quietude, content forever to replicate this 19th century past-time. When change has come, it has largely been through expansion. Where I grew up with 16 major league teams, there are now over 30. 450+ creative writing programs have churned out thousands of MFAs. The lone publication in Ploughshares and a single small press volume is the poetry equivalent of the September call-up in baseball, when teams expand their rosters after the end of the minor league seasons around Labor Day. For more than a few ballplayers (and for more than a few poets), that’s a career.

Baseball was the only thing my grandfather and I could discuss without devolving into a baleful clash of generations. He worked most of his adult life at a paper recycling plant in Emeryville (there is a condo highrise there now), and for a time Chick Gandil, first baseman of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox, was a plumber there. One local Berkeley kid, Billy Martin, grew up in the immediate vicinity of SPD Books (which didn’t yet exist) and went on to become a solid major league player, then manager. My grandfather taught me to play the game in Bushrod Park in North Oakland, the same field on which he had learned – another kid who did so, far better than I, was Rickey Henderson, the finest leadoff hitter in baseball history. One guy from my high school, Ron Hansen, was the major league rookie of the year in 1960 and had a fifteen year career in the bigs. He’s still working in the game as the Phillies major league advance scout. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, I was just 11 years old, the perfect age to fixate on the local team. Between Willie Mays & Orlando Cepeda that first year, Willie McCovey the next, Juan Marichal soon thereafter, the Giants of that era were one of the great franchises of the last half century. The longest homerun I ever saw in person was hit by Giants outfielder Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner – it cleared the rightfield wall in old Seals Stadium, the minor-league ballpark at 16th and South Van Ness, ending well into the park across 16th street. The Giants of that era did everything but win a World Series & had McCovey’s ninth-inning line drive in game seven of the 1961 series gone a foot or so higher, just beyond the reach of Yankees second baseman Bobbie Richardson, the J’ints would have accomplished that as well. The team’s only problem in those years was that, beyond Marichal (and Gaylord Perry for awhile, Sad Sam Jones for a year, Jack Sanford & Mike McCormick for brief periods), they lacked pitching.

According to baseball lore, and baseball lore is powerful juju, pitching is 90 percent of the game. There are dozens of clichés that all say pretty much the same thing: good pitching always beats good hitting.

But this year the Phils, the team with the longest history in the same city and with the same name & only one World Series Championship to show for it, have put together one of the most productive lineups in the history of the game. But they also have perhaps the worst pitching in the majors. It’s almost a schizophrenic dissociation of the two parts of the game, so dramatically different that it looks like a middle school science experiment. With the exception of third base, where the team has had a not entirely successful three-way platoon going all year, the lineup from catcher all the way around the infield and across the outfield all the way to right is perhaps as strong – if not stronger – than any single team I’ve seen in my lifetime. They remind me more than anything of the mid-1950s New York Yankees or perhaps the Big Red Machine of a couple decades later. Five players have more than 20 home runs each. They have last year’s Most Valuable Player at first base in Ryan Howard & Jimmy Rollins – J-Rol in local parlance – at shortstop figures to be a top vote-getter this year. He deserves to win that award. They have the best second baseman in baseball, the best really since Joe Morgan was still a Red. Their center fielder made the All-Star team, their left fielder has 30 home runs, and right field has seen two regulars, in serial fashion, Shane Victorino (“The Flyin’ Hawai’ian”) & Jayson Werth work so well that the aforementioned center fielder is almost certainly going to be gone after this season, freeing up big dollars so that the Phils can afford to sign Howard to a long term deal and begin to address the problem of pitching.

Ah, but their pitching. While most teams carry 12 pitchers these days, the Phils have had only three all year who have been consistently reliable – starters Cole Hamels & Kyle Kendrick & closer Brett Myers. They've used maybe 30 different players as pitchers all season, once using 13 in one game (albeit some a pinch runners & even pinch hitters - it's what happens when you have to carry that many arms). Hamels & Myers have both been on the disabled list (DL) for part of the year, and Kendrick started the season in the minors where he wasn’t even rated among the Phils’ top ten prospects. Myers was the opening day starting pitcher, but then last year’s closer, Tom “Flash” Gordon, started the season hurt. So Myers got pulled into the pen and Jon Lieber, the team’s “ace” just two years ago, was brought back out of the bullpen to start. Lieber was soon injured himself and was out almost all year. The two big money pitchers the Phils acquired last winter – Freddy Garcia & Adam Eaton – have been similar busts. Garcia’s been on the DL most of the season – you can see this is a theme – while Eaton has the worst Earned Run Average in the league. During the first part of the season, he would have one decent start followed by a dreadful one. As it wore on, however, the ratio has gone to one good start followed by two bad ones. The one other starter remaining from the opening day rotation, Jamie Moyer, is ancient by baseball standards, 44. He is the only major leaguer left from the same rookie crop that included Barry Bonds. Moyer’s a smart junkballer & obviously a good influence on the younger players, but he no longer has great stamina. Although he grew up nearby in Bucks County, Moyer basically wilted from the Philadelphia heat around the beginning of August and has been pitching on fumes since then. The other starter in the current rotation is Kyle Lohse, whom the Phils picked up from Cincinnati, a bad team that concluded that Lohse couldn’t pitch for them. Tho Lohse has only gotten only two wins in his last nine starts, seven were what baseball insiders like to call quality starts, games in which the starting pitcher gets through six innings giving up no more than three runs. The Phils also acquired J.C. Romero, another player being dumped by his original team, as a relief pitcher who has settled comfortably into the seventh-inning relief pitcher the team has needed all season. Two of the team’s other relievers, Jose Mesa & Alphonse Alfonseco, are one-time major league closers (Mesa once with the Phillies) who bounce around from team to team these days, bolstering the bullpen, then getting released when they hit a bad patch.

This, as you can see, is the sort of pitching staff you might expect from an expansion team, one newly added to the league. Somehow, this patchwork staff has managed to enable the team to finally gain a share of first place, with just three games remaining in the season. It’s quite amazing really.

This has been a year in which no team has dominated the National League – at this late date, no single team has clinched a playoff berth in any of the league’s three divisions. When you realize that the Phils have blown perhaps 20 games this year in late innings that they should have won because their relievers couldn’t hold a lead or because manager Charlie Manuel left the starter in longer than he should have out of lack of confidence in whatever would come next, you begin to understand that this team – which also has won some four dozen games in come-from-behind fashion – is the one that should have finished 15 games ahead of the rest of the league. Instead, they’ve struggled all season long. It was really just three weeks ago, when they swept a series from the Mets, then did it again just a week later, that the Phils have begun to look like they could do this.

Supposedly, the wild card team is the one that “shouldn’t have made it” to the playoffs, because it was not strong enough to finish first in its own division. Yet in recent years, wild card teams have had a better than average chance of taking the whole enchilada. That’s usually because they’re performing at playoff intensity for two, maybe three weeks before the playoffs even begin, while the teams that coasted to a division championship find they have a hard time ramping up to the level needed for baseball’s so-called second season. The Phils, who have a shot at the wild card as well as the National League championship, have been at that white-hot intensity level now for the better part of a month. The obvious smart money would say that if they make it to the playoffs, they should be roadkill against a better pitching staff in the first round, and ditto for each succeeding one. If the Phils should go beyond the first round, it will upset a whole lot of long-term baseball junkies, stats geeks and more than a few bookies. If they win the whole thing, it's the end of the world as we know it. It’s sort of like asking, can Frankenstein’s monster not just stumble around in the graveyard, but hop into this jet plane, glance at the instrument panel & fly? It’s going to be fun finding out.


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