Sunday, July 15, 2007

Reflecting on 10,000 losses

If we have said it once we’ve said it a thousand times: stick around long enough and your team will lose some games. And as one of the older clubs in the history of Major League Baseball, the Phillies have lost more games than any other team in professional sports history.

Actually 10,000 of them.

The Phillies, as everyone knows by now, lost their 10,000th game on Sunday night to the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, the outcome was never in doubt even when the Phillies scored two runs in the ninth inning of the 10-2 loss. Even when images of that game from Dodger Stadium in August of 1990 when the Phillies rallied for nine runs in the ninth to win 12-11 were conjured, no one really thought the Cardinals were going to blow it.

Something like that would have really upset the fans that remained to see a bit of “history,” stomping and clapping with anticipation with each pitch following the second out of the ninth inning.

Nevertheless, the remarkable part regarding the Phillies and all of the losses in the fact that they have been to the World Series just twice since 1980, five times since 1883 and have won the World Series just once in 125 seasons.

That, folks, is amazing.

But a stroll through the Phillies clubhouse reveals that the players are not really hung up on any of those facts. Better yet, when rookie Kyle Kendrick was asked about winning Friday night’s game to delay the dubious milestone for another time, the 22-year old right-hander just shrugged.

Yeah, sure, he seemed to say, it was really good that I didn’t lose the game that would have been the 10,000th loss in team history. Then again, it didn’t seem like Kendrick really cared about all of the fuss. For one thing Kendrick is 4-0 in his six big league starts for the Phillies so it’s not like he contributed anything to three centuries of baseball futility in Philadelphia.

“He’s done his part,” fellow rookie Mike Zagurski mused to a couple of scribes while relaxing in front of his locker with an amused look on his face as more than a few reporters scurried about in a vain attempt to get someone, anyone to say anything about the Phillies and their 10,000 losses.

But why would they? The elder statesmen of the team are Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell who have had nothing but winning seasons since their first full seasons in 2001. Sure, there was that 80-81 year in 2002, but in every season since – save for 2003 – the Phillies have been in the playoff mix all the way to the last week of the season.

Like Burrell and Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard know nothing about playing for a losing Phillies club. Ask them about the frustration about missing the playoffs on the last few games of the season and they have a full range of experience. But being on a losing team? They haven’t been there.

That doesn’t make them too different than nearly every other player to ever pull on the Philadelphia uniform, though. Better yet, the players who actually have been to the playoffs as a member of the Phillies is as select a group as a collection of Nobel Laureates. Actually, the Phillies with playoff experience are a more select group. After all, they give out a bunch of Nobel Prizes every year and at the current rate the Phillies go to the playoffs once every 13.8 years.

That is, of course, if form holds up and they miss out again this season.

Perhaps the point is that since 1883 the Phillies have provided a much more esoteric definition of what winning and losing is. Maybe for the Phillies and their fans victories come in small packages, like that game at Dodger Stadium in 1990 where they scored nine runs in the ninth to win 12-11? Maybe the measure of a true victory is one in which the odds and trends are tipped ever-so slightly for a brief and fleeting moment in time? Aren’t those victories more exhilarating any way? You know, proving people wrong just that one time before returning to the old song and verse…

After all, by now all the followers of the Phillies ought to know that tune by heart.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Floyd Landis on Tour to Clear His Name

EPHRATA, Pa. – It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not here. Not now. In any other era or any other point of history, Floyd Landis should be relaxing after a ride through the Pyrenees near his training base in Girona, Spain, or perhaps even trekking his way from France to London ahead of the prologue of the Tour de France, which is set to begin next Saturday.

Perhaps even he would be preparing for a ceremonial role in the 2007 Tour de France after undergoing hip-replacement surgery last November. Instead of leading his team through the heat of the French lowlands and the brutal climbs up the Pyrenees and Alps every day for three weeks, Landis could have been like the Grand Marshal in the race he won quite dramatically just a year ago. It could have been like a victory lap around the entire country and a way for the American rider from Lancaster County, Pa. to say thanks to the fans for witnessing the culmination of a lot of blood and sweat to make a dream come true.

Better yet, he could simply be watching it all from a top-floor suite at Le Meridien with sweeping views of the elegant City of Lights and an unobstructed look at the Eiffel Tower. That is if he had not chosen to grind it up Alpe d’Huez or Col du Galibier in an attempt to bring home two in a row.

Yeah, that’s how it was supposed be.

Landis speaks...

Why is there a disconnect between the public/press on the issues? Is it because they are “doped” on the issue of dope?
"It’s a lot of things and that tops it all off. The subject of sports is all about doping and people have had enough. So whenever the subject comes up and someone is accused, they just write it off as, ‘Yeah, he didn’t do it, I’ve heard it all before.’ That’s all fine and USADA and WADA say that [its] tests are perfect and people believe them because why would they say it if it wasn’t true? You can’t imagine that an anti-doping agency would want to do anything other than find the truth.

"But the problem is they have this lab and it’s not a very good lab and they made all of these mistakes. And when they realized they had made these mistakes and made a huge public scene and Dick Pound [president of World Anti-Doping Agency] says that, ‘Everyone says he’s guilty.’ Well, if they back down from that then they lost all credibility. They just can’t all of a sudden say, 'we’re sorry.’"

I assume you have heard about the Walsh book?
"People have told me about it… "

Are you going to sell more books than him?
"Oh for sure. First of all, his book is in the fiction section so if people are looking for some entertainment, there you go.

"His problem is that he just hates Lance. It’s clear. He’s not anti-doping, he’s anti-Lance. That serves no purpose."

It's his third time writing the same book...
"How many times can you write a book in different languages? It’s still the same book."

What can you tell people about Lance Armstrong that no one else knows?
"I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows. People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it.

"Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him, like in the Walsh book."

Are you still going to race at Leadville (in August)?
"Yeah, it seemed like a good idea back when I was training more… that’s going to be painful. I’ve been riding a little more since the hearing ending – I’ve been trying to get some more miles in. If I can just get a few decent weeks of training in I’ll be alright. I don’t particularly like to race at altitude and this one is at 10,000-feet, but I’ll be fine.

"I don’t like altitude at all. I hate it. I did that thing a few weeks ago in Vail (Colorado) at the Teva Mountain Games for a fund raiser and that was a problem. The problem there was that I sat in that hearing for 10 days and I didn’t do [anything]. I didn’t even move. It wasn’t like I even exercised, I just sat there. Then I got on my bike a week later and tried to race and it was painful. Hopefully I can get some time up at altitude somewhere."

When you train, do you usually go to altitude?
"When I really care and I want to be in shape and I’m training for the Tour or something, I go to altitude. It helps. It helps if you’re going to race at sea level, but if race at altitude you have to train there. You can’t just show up."

Is training in the Northestern U.S. humidity as difficult as training at altitude?
"It’s not the same. It’s equally as hard, but (humidity) doesn’t help you adapt to altitude. It’s very difficult if you aren’t used to altitude. Riding around here is hard if you aren’t used to humidity. Those little hills that go up and down – you get tired fast riding around here [in Lancaster County]. You don’t ride 100 miles around here. In California, for example, you can ride along the coast and do 100 miles and not climb a whole lot and be alright. There’s nothing like that here."

How good are the riding conditions in this part of the country?
"This is one of the best. If you want to win the Tour or are at the level I was at, you need big mountains. You need to be able to climb for an hour or an hour-and-a-half at a time. But as far as just riding goes and training and you want nice roads, it doesn’t get any better than this."

Who is going to win the 2007 Tour de France?
"Not me."

-- John R. Finger

Instead, Landis was sitting on a soft couch in a dimly lit but comfortable room atop of a bicycle shop near his old stomping grounds in Ephrata, Pa. answering a reporter’s questions. And he’s trying to figure out the fastest way down Route 222 in order to get from Ephrata to Lancaster for an appearance at a Barnes & Noble. From there it was figuring out how to negotiate the Schuylkill Expressway for another media outing. Instead of stages on the tour like Mazamet to Plateau-de-Beille, Landis will be attempting to get from West Chester, Pa. to Washington, D.C. to Wheaton, Ill.

Instead, Landis has lost a potential $10 million in earnings and has spent more than $1 million of his own money to clear his name.

What a difference a year makes, huh?

“I wasn’t doing this (last year),” Landis said. “Right about now I was flying from California to France to start the Tour and I was in the best shape of my life. I’m not so much now, but I’m into some other stuff.”

That other stuff is a different type of tour. Call it the Tour de Book or the Tour de Plead-thy-Case. Landis was relaxing after an afternoon ride in Souderton, Pa. to help promote the Univest Grand Prix race that will take place on Sept. 8. While relaxing, he multitasked by taking a phone call from a reporter before entertaining questions from another reporter from a Lancaster TV station and newspaper. After that, it was off to the Barnes & Noble in Lancaster where he would sign copies of his new book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France until late into the evening.

That’s what his life is like these days – another city; another stage; more books to sign; and more reporters asking questions leading to the same theme of, “Did you do it?” Or “How can they get away with it?” It’s a different kind of preparation with more grueling jagged mountains to climb. But unlike the Tour de France, this tour doesn’t have an end in sight.

And when it does end, it could end badly.

Needless to say, Landis hasn’t thought much about his victory in the Tour de France and it’s no wonder that he was a bit unsure of when the world’s biggest cycling race was going to begin this year. In a sense it’s like he never really won it behind the cursory pomp and celebration, but then it didn’t really mean anything yet.

“At some levels it seems like forever and other levels it went very quickly,” he said. “The whole thing was a strange experience. Winning the Tour in the first place – although it was a goal – you can imagine it all you want, but it’s not the same until it really happens. Then I basically had two days to think about it and in those two days even if you win or just finish you feel awful for awhile. So I got through those two days and I really didn’t get a chance to think about, and little did I know those were my only two days to enjoy it, and then this whole doping thing started.

“Right there that eliminated any thought of winning the Tour from my mind. It’s always been dealing with this – and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how the process worked, how the testing worked, and for that matter I didn’t even know what the accusation was against me. I didn’t have any paperwork or anything. It took about two months for me to get it. So everything I thought about and learned was just about what I needed to do and how to deal with the press, and obviously, I had very little idea.”

The whole doping thing has been Landis’ life since he stepped off the victory podium in Paris last July. His life, to this point, has been spent learning the intricacies of science and legal world, with equal parts circus thrown in. Along the way, Landis has become not only the biggest pariah in sports outside of baseball players Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, but also one of the pioneers in the battle for athletes’ rights as he fights to retain his 2006 Tour de France championship that could be stripped from him for an alleged positive test for testosterone following the 17th stage of the race.

Never mind the fact that Landis has not tested positive for anything before or after the now infamous Stage 17, there is a pretty good chance that he could be a banned doper despite the mountains of evidence accumulated that indicate otherwise.

And what if the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) arbitration panel rules against Landis?

“If they rule against me, they are going to have to fabricate something,” said Landis, who could face a two-year ban and become the first ever rider to be stripped of his Tour de France victory if he is convicted.

Man on a mission
It would be very difficult these days to find any one in America who hasn’t heard of Floyd Landis, the recovering Mennonite from little old Farmersville, Pa. in bucolic Lancaster County. Winning one of the biggest sporting events in the world has a way of making anonymity disappear. Everybody knows Floyd Landis now. His story has been told and re-told over and over again amongst friends and acquaintances like it was the latest episode of a favorite TV show or a crazy snap of the weather.

Be that as it may, here’s a quick recap:

Before he won the Tour de France last summer and his world was turned into fodder for the gossip and science realm of the sports pages, Floyd Landis was the cult hero in professional cycling. In fact, there was not an aspect of Landis’ life that wasn’t legendary. His training methods were renowned for being grueling and insatiable.

"There's only one rule: The guy who trains the hardest, the most, wins. Period. Because you won't die,” he famously said in a pre-Tour de France Outside Magazine profile last year. “Even though you feel like you'll die, you don't actually die. Like when you're training, you can always do one more. Always. As tired as you might think you are, you can always, always do one more.”

You can always do one more. That is the line that personifies Floyd Landis.

Meanwhile, his on-again-off-again relationship with the sport’s biggest star, Lance Armstrong, was something every cyclist talked about. So too was Landis’ background and Lancaster County/Mennonite roots. Growing up in Farmersville, more dusty crossroads than rural hamlet, Landis didn’t have a television.

But mostly the stories about Landis amongst cyclists start out with, “Remember the time when Floyd… ” and end with some oddball feat like, “…drank 15 cappuccinos in one sitting.” Or, “rode in the Tour de France nine weeks after having hip surgery.” Or, “ate 28 bags of peanuts during a trans-Atlantic flight.”

Floyd Landis stories are the ones that involve a person pushing himself to extreme limits and taking silly risks that sometimes end with everyone smiling about what they had just witnessed.

The story should have ended after Stage 17 of the ’06 Tour. That’s where the Legend of Floyd reached epic proportions following his legendary ride to bounce back from an equally monumental collapse just the day before. It was over just 24 hours that Landis lost the leader’s Yellow Jersey in the Tour when he “bonked” and lost nearly nine minutes off his overall lead and dropped to 11th place. But in the very next stage Landis attacked the peloton from the very beginning of the 111-mile stage to amazingly regain all the time he had lost.

A few days later he was standing all alone in Paris. Floyd Landis, the kid from Farmersville, Pa., was the winner of the Tour de France.

That’s where it was supposed to end.

Instead, he became Floyd Landis the professional defendant because a urine test after that epic Stage 17 had come back positive, revealing an unusually high ratio of the hormone testosterone to the hormone epitestosterone (T/E ratio), according to a test conducted by the French government's anti-doping clinical laboratory, the National Laboratory for Doping Detection. The lab is accredited by the Tour de France, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and USADA.

An arbitration hearing led by USADA took place in Malibu, Calif. in May and Landis is still waiting on a ruling from a three-member panel.

But in the months leading up to the arbitration hearing, Landis became a trailblazer of sorts. Just as he attacked during Stage 17, Landis attacked USADA with mountains of evidence culled from his positive test to make the case that, as he says, never should have tested positive. Some of the evidence Landis collected included forged documents, faulty testing procedures, erroneously contaminated urine samples, and claims that the positive finding on one of the urine samples came from a sample number not assigned to Landis.

But the real innovation came in what Landis did with the information he had gathered. Instead of waiting for the arbitration hearing and hiding out behind lawyers and legalese, he took his case to the people. Like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia which allows users to add information to an entry when new findings are made, Landis mounted a “Wiki Defense” in which he posted all of the information released by USADA and the French lab and allowed experts to help him mount his case and find errors in the opposition’s stance.

He also went on “The Floyd Fairness Tour” in which he raised money for his defense, made detailed presentations regarding his case and talked to anyone who would listen regarding the French lab’s findings and USADA’s case against him.

In a sense, Landis took his fight to the streets and claims that USADA has never once disputed any of his findings. In fact, USADA never disputed any of Landis’ arguments in the arbitration hearing, nor have they answered the claims he made in his new book, such as USADA offered a more lenient penalty if he could help the agency mount a doping case against Lance Armstrong.

USADA, an agency that receives some of its funding from U.S. taxpayers, did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment in this story.

Said Landis about USADA not disputing his testimony: “They don’t have anything to say.”

In the interim, Landis has become the leading advocate for non-union athlete’s rights against the national and world agencies. In fact, in facing new allegations from Irish investigative reporter David Walsh in a newly released book called, From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France, Armstrong has copied some of Landis’ moves by releasing all of the legal findings from his cases on the Internet.

So just like that Landis goes from winning the Tour de France to legal innovator? How does a guy who grew up in a home without a TV set create a “Wiki Defense” on the World Wide Web?

“That wasn’t even in the back of my mind, and honestly, I didn’t realize the jeopardy that athletes are in because it never crossed my mind. I had no problem giving a urine sample because I did it all the time and I assumed that the people testing it were legitimate and out to do the right thing. It never crossed my mind that it could be the way it is,” Landis explained. “And it’s hard for people to believe when I say it really is that bad. They think, ‘Yeah, he’s guilty. That’s why he’s trying to accuse them.’ But, even a guilty person deserves to have the evidence against him provided to him without having to spend $1 million in a year.”

Landis is mounting his legal case against the doping agencies, his information tour, and his book tour without the aid of a cycling union. In fact, if player in the NFL or Major League Baseball faced the same accusations as Landis, the players’ union would have his back. There is no such union to represent Landis.

So if Landis were a defensive lineman attacking the quarterback instead of a bicyclist attacking Alpe d’Huez would he have even tested positive?

“Of course not,” he said. “None of this should have ever happened. Look, if you’re going to enforce ethics then you have to hold yourself to the absolute highest standard. You can’t have a lab that’s doing the testing forging documents and doing just random things wrong, and when they do just write it off as, ‘Well, it’s just a mistake we’ll just write it off and ignore it.’”

It’s not the science, it’s the circus
Despite Landis’ piles of evidence and USADA not refuting them, the cyclist's credibility was what the anti-doping agency attacked during the arbitration hearing. That’s because three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond testified that Landis’ former business manager threatened him in a crank phone call that he was going to go public with LeMond’s secret that he had been sexually abused as a child.

The manager, Will Geoghegan, was fired immediately, according to Landis, and the cyclist admits he was in the room when the call was made.

But in retrospect, Landis says LeMond’s testimony as well as the attacks against his credibility are irrelevant because LeMond and a former professional cyclist named Joe Papp were brought in to testify for USADA for no real reason.

“Either it’s science or something else. If it’s not science than what is it? Take, for instance, at the hearing where they brought in Greg LeMond and Joe Papp, neither of whom said anything,” Landis explained. “They didn’t say anything and they had no relevance. For example, Joe Papp told us that he took a bunch of drugs and apparently they didn’t help him and then he left. I didn’t know the guy, I never raced the guy – what that had to do with science is beyond me.”

Because of the LeMond controversy, the real point of the hearings was lost for headline writers and the general public, says Landis. The fact is, he says, the French lab didn’t even test him for the substance that he is accused of using.

“What really got lost and I have been trying to tell people this: when they got to the point where they had to identify the substance and they had to measure it, they identified the wrong thing. And that got lost in the whole big mess because there were so many arguments, but if you just look at that there’s no point in even talking about the rest of it. The other 200 things they did wrong don’t even matter because they didn’t even test testosterone,” Landis said.

Then, he paused, leaned forward on the couch and raised his voice beyond a normal conversational tone:

“And I don’t know how they are going to get around that! What are they going to say, ‘Well, it was something close to testosterone so we’ll just call him guilty.’ How is that going to work? I don’t know, but believe me, I’ve seen them do some pretty strange things to this point.”

An uncertain future
The Floyd Landis story has been nothing but strange. Nothing has been ordinary and nothing has come easy. Listening to Landis speak after reading his book, as well as Daniel Coyle’s Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France, makes anyone want to stage a riot or a march proclaiming the man’s innocence. It’s very difficult not to believe him simply because he is fighting. Oftentimes people are baffled that those who claim they are wrongly accused don’t display anger and choose to hide in the legal system of behind the words of an attorney.

But Landis isn’t doing that. Instead of cashing in as every other Tour de France champion has, Landis faces the reality of personal bankruptcy. He very well could lose his home and his daughter could lose money once earmarked for her education simply because Floyd Landis believes he has been wronged and has chosen to stand up for himself.

He isn’t in France living a cushy life that years of putting in the hard work on the saddle have earned him, but instead is talking to everyone who will listen, signing every autograph requested and making sure that everyone who wants to have a book signed gets it.

Very certainly Landis could mail it in. He could give pat answers in a detached way, but chooses not to. Instead he engages everyone and has a conversation when no one has forced him to.

One of the biggest pariahs in sports has decided he has to fight. Actually, he doesn’t see any other choice.

And that leaves us with one more question… will Landis still be fighting next year at this time or will he be relaxing after a ride through the Pyrenees near his training base in Girona, Spain in preparation for another ride down the Champs Elysées?

“I hope so. I really hope so and I think so,” he said excitedly. “The longer this thing goes on the more I think things are going to work out because we put on a case that was never refuted even in the hearing.”

That, after all, was the way it was supposed to be.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Doing the work

I was probably 12-years old the first time someone told me I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA. At the time the thought of it made me laugh – I was one of the tallest kids on my basketball team, I was relatively coordinated, I could dribble with both hands and I was the best shooter in the league. Plus, I went to basketball camps and worked on my shooting as much as a kid my age could. When games were on TV (not everyone was televised in those days), I watched hoping to pick up some moves from Julius Erving, Larry Bird or Kevin McHale.

Better yet, the Sixers’ pre-season training camp was held in the gym where I practiced after school. I went to every practice session because when the NBA champs were finished using the court, I was going to go through my paces. Sometimes a few players hung around to snag rebounds and offer a few pointers. Dr. J did once, and Leon Wood was very friendly. No one, though, was as helpful as Andrew Toney. It always seemed that Toney was working on his shooting long after his teammates had left the gym to do whatever it was they did in Lancaster, Pa.

So when I was told that I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA it was laughable. How could that be?

Looking back it all makes sense now. I grew up to be 6-foot-1, which is the same size as “Tiny” Archibald. Plus, I soon ventured out of my insular little world and found out that there were players just as good as me who sat on the bench for their teams. Sure, I was an above-average shooter – probably amongst the best two or three in my school – but there is a lot more to the game than just shooting the ball from the outside. On defense, chances were that I was going to allow just as many points as I scored. Occasionally I got in the way and stopped my opponent, but that was usually just dumb luck.

More telling was the fact that I went to the high school regarded as the finest in athletics in the area. The basketball teams have won more league championships than any other school, while the other sports – specifically track and field – were sometimes powerhouses. Yet despite this, my high school has never produced an NBA player. Actually, we’ve had just three Major Leaguers, two NFLers, and just a handful of Division I standouts.

So what’s the point of this? Simple. Mo Vaughn knew by the age of 12 that he was going to be a Major League baseball player. At least that’s what his parents said during a game at Fenway a few years back when asked when they realized their son was going to be a big leaguer.

When Mo was 12, Mr. Vaughn said, he played in a men’s baseball league and, “he dominated.”

It seems like 12 is the magic age to determine a person’s athletic future. Oh sure, there are late bloomers like Ryan Howard who was overlooked even when he was deep into his college career. But one thing is for certain: Ryan Howard was on the path to the big leagues long before that. A diamond in the rough is still a diamond.

But baseball doesn’t last forever. Sure, these days getting a big-league contract is a lot like winning the Powerball. The thing a lot of parents and kids don’t understand is that the odds of getting there are just as slim. Yet even though Mo Vaughn dominated adults before he was a teenager, he was made to prepare for the day when the games ended. Interestingly, these days Vaughn is in real estate development, but he’s not simply putting up high-end McMansions that only other lottery winners can afford. Instead, Vaughn, according to George Vecey's story in The New York Times, is building affordable housing for folks with modest incomes.

Baseball, it seems, was nothing more than a tool for Vaughn to put him where he could do really important work. That’s the key – kids should use the games to put them where they need to be. Chances are that’s not going to be in the big leagues.

Ryan Howard seems to believe that, too. According to what he told Bryant Gumble on the latest edition of HBO’s Real Sports that there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to return to school and finish his course work.

Believe it or not, that’s much more important than hitting 60 homers.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Manuel enters last year of contract

It wasn’t all that long ago when general manager Pat Gillick stood in front of the local press and said that he didn’t think the Phillies would be able to compete for a playoff spot until 2008. To be fair, it certainly didn’t look good for the Phillies from anyone’s perspective after the team had just sent Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees while dealing away veterans David Bell and Rheal Cormier in a payroll purge that had “Fire Sale” written all over it.

So when Gillick – a GM who has witnessed enough in his four decades in the game to know a salary dump when he saw one – the “wait until the year after next year” was chillingly honest.

“It will be a stretch to say we’ll be there in ’07,” Gillick said on last July 30. “We’ll have to plug in some young pitchers and anytime you do that you’ll have some inconsistency.

“It’s going to take another year.”

But a funny thing happened on the Phillies’ trip to oblivion. After the trading deadline Ryan Howard emerged as the slugger in the Majors by smashing 23 home runs in the final 58 games. Furthermore, Chase Utley joined Howard amongst the game’s elite and clubbed 10 homers in the last month of the season to form a dynamic duo that should be a staple for the Phils well into the next decade.

A team does not live on homers alone, which is a good thing because heralded rookie Cole Hamels showed glimpses of the brilliance everyone had predicted by going 6-3 with a 2.60 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings during the season’s final two months. Those are numbers any veteran would take, let alone a 22-year-old kid who had never completed a full season ever because of one injury or another.

With that, when Jimmy Rollins proclaims the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East everyone just kind of shrugs and says, “Yeah, maybe he’s on to something.”

“We've improved ourselves, and some other teams haven't really done a whole lot,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “We've cut some ground on the Mets. On paper, we got stronger in our division.”

In other words, despite Gillick’s anti-Knute Rockne speech, the Phillies believed they were good enough to compete for a playoff spot now. With a youthful exuberance that prevents the players from doing something silly by allowing the media or fans to dictate how good they can be, the Phillies took the season to its final days for the second straight season. Actually, the prospects for success changed so much that Gillick backed off his claim from last July and went out and added a couple of veteran pitchers for the rotation, a veteran bat or two for the bench, and just might have another move up his sleeve to get a relief pitcher before the Phillies break camp in Clearwater and head north in late March.

Suddenly, wait-until-the-year-after-next-year became let’s-get-them-now.

This turnaround begs the question, “How did this happen?” Or better yet: “Just what did the Phillies do to go 36-22 after trading Abreu and three other veterans to nearly reach the playoffs for just the second time since Hamels, Howard and Utley were babies?”

Do you really want to know what the players say? Well… it’s the manager.

“He's a big reason the chemistry on this team is as good as it is,” Aaron Rowand said at last week’s media luncheon in Citizens Bank Park. “You guys don't get to see it, the fans don't get to see it, because you guys aren't in the clubhouse all the time. You guys aren't in the dugout during the game when he's talking to the guys, when he's conversing with people, helping guys out, pumping guys up. He's one of the best managers I've ever had a chance to play for, and I would have been very sorry to have seen him go after last year.”

Rowand, who won the World Series with Ozzie Guillen as the manager for the White Sox in 2005, isn’t the only player who says these kinds of things, either. Actually, it’s harder to find a player who says Manuel is not his favorite manager. Any player who has spent time with Manuel has lots of stories to tell with most of the subject matter dealing with something that left everyone in stitches and gets retold in an imitation of the skipper’s Virginia drawl.

In that regard, if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery then Charlie Manuel is the most beloved man in Philadelphia.

Yet for as much as the players love him, and for as much as the writing press respects him, something about Manuel’s down home, everyman persona has missed with the sophisticates in Philadelphia. In fact, a common thing heard from folks talking about the Phillies’ chances is that the team is ready to make a run at the playoffs, but if they don’t maybe they’ll finally get rid of that Charlie Manuel.

And because Manuel is heading in to the last season of his three-year deal, it could be playoffs or bust for him.

Yes, he knows all about it.

“Believe me, that doesn't affect me,” Manuel said. “I want to focus on winning ballgames. It's not about me. It's about our players. The players are the ones who are going to win the game for us, and if we're successful, then I think Charlie Manuel will be successful.”

Make no mistake; there are a lot of people who don’t want the Phillies to be successful for that very reason. Forget that after two seasons in which Manuel won more games than all but one manager in team history through this point in his tenure – a fact first reported on With the Phillies, 173 victories in two seasons in which the team was eliminated from wild-card playoff contention at game Nos. 162 and 161 is borderline historic. Actually, it’s more than remarkable – it’s unprecedented.

This is a franchise, after all, where only two (two!) managers have taken the team to more than one postseason. It’s a franchise that has been to the playoffs just nine times in 123 seasons. For comparisons sake, look at the Atlanta Braves who… wait, nevermind. It just isn’t fair to compare the Phillies to any other franchise.

One thing hasn’t changed from the Phillies’ golden days in the late 1970s and early1980s and that’s the bottom line. In the end, winning is the only thing that matters.

“Ever since I came here, from Day 1, I said I came here to win,” Manuel said. “It's not, ‘I need to win.’ It’s, ‘Philadelphia needs to win.’ ‘The organization needs to win.’ And I understand that.”

So what happens if the Phillies win in 2007? Does Manuel get a new deal to take him into the next decade, or does the organization allow him to walk away? Of all the intriguing plotlines for the upcoming baseball season, the case of Manuel and his future with the Phillies could be the most interesting. After two seasons littered with hope and promise there is plenty of room for improvement.

But then again, for the Phillies 173 victories in two seasons is nothing to sneeze at.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Calling it a career

It was in July of 1966 when Jim Brown got the call from Cleveland Browns’ owner Art Modell that he should report to training camp immediately. But after nine seasons of hard running where he delivered as much punishment as he received in rushing for 12,312 yards and another 2,499 receiving for 126 touchdowns – excluding five playoff games – Brown decided enough was enough. Just 29-years old and regarded as the best football player ever, Brown couldn’t wrestle up the desire to heed Modell’s call and head to steamy, sultry Ohio for two-a-days.

Instead he remained in France to continue making The Dirty Dozen.

For anyone who has seen that epic film I think we know that Brown made the correct choice. Come on think about it… make The Dirty Dozen with Lee Marvin and John Cassavettes or run around in Cleveland to prepare for the 1966 NFL season. Does anyone remember anything that occurred in the 1966 NFL season?

Does anyone remember 1966?

It is worth noting, however, that Brown likely never would have had the chance to be anywhere near the production set of any motion picture had he not played football. The NFL, and all of professional sports for that matter, seems to be a great proving ground for acting, public speaking, and journalism. Based on generalizations from national and local television appearances, even the most middling careers as a professional jock carries more weight than an advanced degree from some of the country’s best universities.

And just like in national politics, correct grammar, syntax and prowess over the language is optional.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Brown is Barry Sanders, who had no blockbuster movies or a career as a smiling suit to tackle after 10 seasons of piling up more than 18,000 yards for the hapless Detroit Lions. Instead Sanders acted like a insouciant cool kid who was invited to a party hosted and attended by a group a little beneath his social standing.

Imagine what that conversation sounded like when the Lions called Sanders, then just 31, to ask him why he wasn’t at training camp.


“Hey Barry, it’s the Lions. We’re just calling to see how your summer was going and to see if you were going to come on out to training camp. We have a lot of people here and it looks like it’s going to be a really good time.”


“Yeah, well, we kind of have everyone here and were hoping you’d show up soon since you’re the best guy we have.”

“Yeah, about that… who else is going to be there?”

“Well, it looks like pretty much all the same guys who were here last year. There are a few new guys, but no one you ever really heard of.”


“Yeah, it’s pretty much the same guys that were here last year.”

“Hmmm. Well, if that’s the case I guess I’m just going to go ahead and retire. I was hoping we’d get some new guys to show up that were really good at football, but since it’s pretty much the same guys as before, I’m going to stay home and never play football again. I think it will be much more beneficial for me to be able to walk without a limp when I go out to pick up the newspaper or heading toward the green at the first hole. That’s the thing – I’m just tired of getting the crap kicked out of me.”

“But Barry, you’re a few yards away from being the greatest rusher in football history. Don’t you want to get the record? Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to tell your grandchildren that nobody ever ran for more yards than you?”

“No. I think it will be better to be able to walk. Thanks for the offer and the millions of dollars, though. I really appreciate it.”


Somewhere in the middle of all of this is Tiki Barber, who like Sanders, is just 31 and tired of playing professional football for a living. Like Brown, Barber hopes to have a career in the national media when all of his former teammates report to training camp in the heat and the sweat of July. According to reports, Barber has a very lucrative deal from Disney lined up where he lend his expertise and smile to the television cameras for the occasional football game and on the gabfests like “Good Morning America” and “20/20.”

If all goes well, it’s quite possible that Barber could land a role in something as epic as The Dirty Dozen. After all, he already has a national television commercial for the Cadillac Escalade – filmed on the moody, dark and stylish streets of The City – to his credit. With that, I suppose the endorsement deal from the Concerned Friends of the Environment is out.

Nevertheless, when Barber’s career came to a close after David Akers’ 38-yard field goal knifed through the raindrops and split the uprights at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday evening, the speculation began in earnest. Could that 137-yard effort in a playoff game in Philadelphia really have been his last game? Is he really going to stay retired? Michael Jordan came back – twice. George Foreman couldn’t stay retired, either. Nor could Mario Lemieux.

How could he just walk away?

Well… easy.

You see, most people dreamed of becoming an professional athlete and what could be better than being the running back for the football team in the country’s largest city? But Barber says he doesn’t want to be defined by simply being a football player. There is much more to him, he says. Most people -- not just athletes -- don't think this way because they view themselves by the mundane and pigeonholing labels that societies places on people, places and things. Plus, what skews things is that they often really define themselves by what they do. In fact, most of them say that they will not stop playing until they are dragged away.

There lies the contradiction. Most people do not define themselves by their jobs. Instead, regular folks have hobbies or passions that drive them more than just their jobs and work. Why should people whose job is to play football be any different? Why should athletes be held to a different standard?

Why should Tiki Barber have to live out someone else’s dream?

Besides, more people are going to remember Tiki Barber, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders as something other than a football player.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Garcia has Eagles on right path

It seems so long ago that Donovan McNabb went down with his knee injury. Along those lines it seems kind of funny that there was actually a debate over whether or not Jeff Garcia should be the Eagles’ starting quarterback.

It’s funny what a couple of big victories do, huh?

With Garcia at the helm, the Eagles have gone from a team simply playing out the string to one that controls its own destiny in the NFC East. If the Eagles beat the Cowboys in Dallas on Christmas night and the Falcons in South Philly on New Year’s Eve, they win the division.

Who would have guessed?

If the Eagles win both of those games and get some help (the Saints lose two games and the Seahawks lose one), they will get a first-round bye in the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. In fact, the Eagles’ PR staff has even e-mailed out the NFC playoff scenarios:

(Before 12/18 Cincinnati-Indianapolis Monday night game)
For Week 16

Dallas has clinched playoff berth.
Dallas can clinch division with:
1DAL win.

Philadelphia can clinch playoff berth with:
1) PHI win, OR
2) PHI tie + NYG loss or tie, OR
3) PHI tie + ATL loss.

New York can clinch playoff berth with:
1) NYG win + MIN loss or tie + ATL loss + PHI win or tie + SEA win or tie, OR
2) NYG win + MIN loss or tie + ATL loss + PHI win or tie + SF loss or tie.

Chicago has clinched homefield advantage.

New Orleans has clinched division.
New Orleans can clinch first-round bye with:
1) NO win + DAL loss.

Seattle can clinch division with:
1) SEA win or tie, OR
2) SF loss or tie.

One thing that no one is talking about is the Eagles not making the playoffs even though that possibility is realistic. How goofy is that? Based on the results of the next two games the Eagles could be the divisional champions, a No. 2 seed with a first-round bye in the playoffs, or on the outside looking in.

That's with Jeff Garcia, not Donovan McNabb as the quarterback.

Now here’s the big question:

How in the world did we get here? Didn’t the season end a month ago during that nasty loss to the Titans?

Apparently not.

After the crucial victory over the Giants on Sunday, Brian Dawkins said the Eagles’ resurgence was a matter of the team clicking at the right time. Certainly there is no doubt about that. But perhaps the biggest reason for the Eagles’ dash for the playoffs has been the team clicking as Dawkins suggested along with Garcia handling the offense.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions I am not suggesting that the Eagles are a better team with Garcia at quarterback instead of McNabb. I’m not smart enough to make that argument. However, I took the time to ask certain folks who spend a lot of their time with the Eagles and other NFL teams whether or not the team’s changed fortunes are simply a matter of the offense doing what it’s supposed to do or if Garcia is playing well.

The consensus is that it’s both with an emphasis on the latter. The Eagles, I’m told (including by’s bulldog Eagles’ scribe Andy Schwartz), always had the players to fit the offense. But Garcia, they say, has been really good.

In that regard the numbers don’t lie – Garcia has thrown just one interception (yeah, it was a big one) with nine touchdown passes and nearly a 62 percent completion percentage. Statistically, Garcia compares quite favorably with McNabb excluding the rushing.

In another regard, Garcia lived up to some minor hype in rallying the Eagles past the Giants. Prior to the game, the 36-year-old veteran was the subject of a small feature in The New York Times and just may have resurrected a career that even Garcia thought was on the doorstep of fading into oblivion after uninspiring stops in Cleveland and Detroit.

“I'd started to lose faith in football and having fun like I've been having the last three or four weeks, just making plays and letting loose like I used to when I was younger,” Garcia said after his solid 237-yard performance against the Giants. “A year ago, I wasn't thinking this would happen again. But it's starting to come for us.”

But better than good stats and a feature in the paper of record, Garcia’s teammates have full confidence in him. On Daily News Live, Monday, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter heaped praise on the quarterback noting that he prepared every week as if he was going to start the game even though McNabb was off to a Pro Bowl-caliber start to the season. That’s especially important following a lost 2005 season when McNabb went out with an injury and Mike McMahon was asked to guide the ship. Mix that with the Terrell Owens debacle and the difference between last season and 2006 is as different as night and day, noted sure-bet Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook.

“Last year, we were a team divided. We weren’t together at all. We didn't have a hope,” Westbrook said after Sunday’s game. “This year, when Donovan went down, we rallied. This team is real resilient. Garcia comes in, he doesn't make many mistakes, he runs this offense, he leads the team, and with him back there, we have a chance of winning. That's what we need.”

Garcia, of course, wasn’t around last season. Instead he was playing out the string in Detroit at this time a year ago. Needless to say, the situation in Philadelphia is much better.

“It's just exciting to be able to fight for another week,” Garcia said. “We're just glad to be in a place where we all can live another week.”

Now here’s the craziest part…

Maybe – just maybe – the Eagles can wiggle through the ever-fickle NFC playoffs and get all the way to Miami for a game in early February.

One thing at a time, of course, but then again, crazier things have happened.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Deal or not?

According to a few newspaper reports, it sounds as if Allen Iverson – once again – is controlling the 76ers. Apparently, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Iverson balked at a trade to the Charlotte Bobcats, which ruined a potential deal.

That’s one story, but there are others.

Those other stories are all rumors, of course. The Kings, Celtics, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Globetrotters, Real Madrid, and yadda, yadda, yadda, are all interested in making a deal for the 76ers’ star-crossed All-Star but have yet to cross the eyes and dot the tees.

Needless to say, on the record the teams rumored to be involved in negotiating for a deal to get Iverson have all denied their involvement. So in other words, no one knows who knows what is true.

Or false.

But here’s a theory no one in Philadelphia is really giving much credence. In fact, the idea of it just makes the head spin and is so hard to grasp that it could make the feint of heart break into convulsions...


Maybe no one wants Iverson.

Let me write that again…

Maybe no one wants Allen Iverson on their basketball team.

There it is.

Oh sure, big-time players like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will say they want the so-called Answer. General managers like the T'wolves' Kevin McHale and owners like the Kings’ Maloofs will say that Iverson would be a lovely addition to their franchises, too. But when it comes down to putting the money, the soon-to-expire contracts and the draft picks where the mouth is, the Iverson trade watch is dragging on like a hostage situation complete with TV graphics that spell out the time that has passed.

In that regard, I suppose we’re at “Day 5: Iverson Watch.”

It has a little bit of a cool ring to it, but maybe we should add an exclamation point at the end.

Punctuation and splashy graphics aside, lending so fuel to the ugly-stepchild theory is all-time three-point shooter Steve Kerr, who not only played and battled with Michael Jordan, but also serves as an NBA analyst on TV. That, I suppose, makes him an expert on most things related to the NBA. According to Kerr, who talked to Dan Patrick on the eponymously named ESPN radio show, the only teams that would make a trade for someone like Allen Iverson are the ones that are beyond desperate.

“There are only a few teams in the league that would even think about wanting to pull the trigger because the baggage is just too heavy,” Kerr said about trading for Iverson on Patrick’s show. “I’m like everyone else in that I love the way he competes and I love his talent, but part of being a winner is understanding team dynamics and the importance of practice and being professional and being at team functions. If you’re going to take a guy like that and pay him 20 million bucks a year, that’s a pretty big risk.

“In my mind, the teams that will do it are really desperate.”

There’s another caveat, too, said Kerr. In exchange for Iverson, the Sixers will likely want expiring contracts and draft picks in return in order to build a team for the future. But with Ohio State phenom Greg Oden likely to enter the NBA Draft this June, there aren’t too many teams that will want to hand over a lottery pick if they have a ping-pong ball in the mix for the No. 1 selection.

“But who is going to give up a first-round pick this year when you know Greg Oden is probably going to come out,” Kerr asked, wondering if a “deal is going to happen at all.”

Is it likely that we could enter, "Day 37: Iverson Watch!"? Probably not. But let's at least lend some weight to the notion that the 76ers just might tell Iverson to stay at home for the rest of the year.

Don’t worry, Alley I, the checks will keep coming.

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