Monday, June 27, 2011

Pigging Out in Allentown

If you head up the Northeast Extension for about 40 miles from Philly, you will find a newer ballpark in the Phillies farm system called Coca Cola Park and home to the triple A affiliate Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Ground breaking ceremonies began on September 6, 2006 and $50.25 million dollars later the park opened on March 30, 2008. The field dimensions and wall heights are the same as the Bank, except left field is five feet deeper (334 feet to the foul pole compared to 329), center field is one foot shorter and the right field foul pole is five feet closer (325 feet in Allentown compared to 330 feet at Citizens Bank Park). There are 8,100 seats with an additional 1,900 capacity in center field with the lawn area. The scoreboard, which is the largest in all of the minor leagues, consists of a 22' LED screen as well as a 8 foot classic Coca Cola bottle, which serves as a fireworks launcher every time the Iron Pigs score a run. The architectural firm that built Coca Cola Park was Populous who was also behind many other prominent stadiums around the major leagues. Those being the new Yankee Stadium, San Francisco's AT&T Park, Minneapolis's Target Field, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, and the renovation of Wrigley Field just to name a few.

Beer prices are very much similar to First Energy Stadium (home of the Reading Philllies) at $5.25 for a 16 ounce and $9.00 for a the big one (get the 16 oz. on a hot summer day). Food prices were a little higher than Reading, however much lower than the Bank. One signature item is the Aw Shucks Roasted Corn. I was skeptical at first with the price per cob at $3.50, but thought I should at least give it a try. The taste was out of this world with the brushed on butter, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and Aw Shucks secret family recipe seasoning. Peter King of Sports Illustrated and ESPN is quoted as saying “Aw Shuck's Roasted Corn out in right field. Now, I've been to many ballparks in my 52 years, and I've never seen a roasted corn concession at a ballpark. But this corn was ... well, I'll just say if I had my choice between a Kansas City Porterhouse or an Aw Shuck's ear, I'd take the corn.”

Club level seats are $14, field level are $9, and general admission are just $6 making this a place you can take the entire family and not break the bank. The Majestic Clubhouse is the spot for all Iron Pigs merchandise including a Pig Nose for only $3.00 so you can truly “pig out” every time you visit Coca Cola Park.

Random Past Game: April 27, 2009

Date of Game: Monday, April 27, 2009
Location: Citizens Bank Park
Opponent: Washington Nationals
Final Score: Phillies 13, Nationals 11
Winning Pitcher: J.A. Happ
Losing Pitcher: Joel Hanrahan
Save: Ryan Madson
Home Runs: Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Ryan Zimmerman (2), Elijah Dukes, Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn

Phillies Starting Lineup

Jimmy Rollins, ss
Shane Victorino, cf
Chase Utley, 2b
Ryan Howard, 1b
Jayson Werth, rf
Raul Ibanez, lf
Greg Dobbs, 3b
Lou Marson, c
Joe Blanton, p

Nationals Starting Lineup

Anderson Hernandez, ss
Nick Johnson, 1b
Ryan Zimmerman, 3b
Adam Dunn, lf
Elijah Dukes, cf
Austin Kearns, rf
Jesus Flores, c
Alberto Gonzalez, ss
Shairon Martis, p

About This Game: The Philadelphia Phillies as we know them at this current moment are not a team that engages in very many slugfests. A dominant pitching staff keeps opposing tallies to a minimum on most nights while the offense struggles to dent the plate themselves, though they do manage scrape across enough runs to come out on the winning side of things more often than not. That is not exclusive to the Phils, as the game has been trending more towards pitching over the past couple of seasons. We naturally tend to scrutinize our own team more, and poor production on any side of the ball can be exasperating. The lack of offense is a bit of a culture shock for Phillies fans, who had grown accustomed to seeing the ballclub light up the scoreboard on a regular basis for several seasons prior to 2010. It was an attack that could be relentless, and opposing teams were best served taking advantage of every scoring opportunity presented to them. Sometimes, even doing so wasn't enough. This was especially true on April 27, 2009.

The early part of the 2009 season was somewhat of a surreal experience for the Phillies and their fans. The club entered the campaign as defending World Series Champions for just the second time in franchise history and with that came the usual pomp and circumstance. Before the novelty had a chance to wear off, the team and the city were hit with a devastating dose of reality on April 13 when beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas died suddenly while preparing to work that day's game against the Nationals in Washington. A somber and distracted ballclub struggled to find its footing on the field, getting off to a 6-8 start. The pitching staff encountered its share of difficulty in the early going, not allowing fewer than four runs in any of the season's first dozen games, including a stretch of four in a row when opponents crossed the plate eight times. The Phils also had trouble in their own home as '09 got underway, losing their first three series at Citizens Bank Park as they dropped two of three to the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers. By the time the Nationals came to visit in late April, the Phillies appeared ready to bust out of the doldrums and make some history while they were at it.

This Monday night tilt in South Philly was the opener of a three-game series between the Phillies and Nationals. The Phils were riding a three-game winning streak coming in, having swept a weekend road set against the Florida Marlins to put them at 9-8 on the young season, 1.5 games behind Florida in the National League East. The Nationals had finished last in the NL East with a 59-102 record in 2008 and again brought up the rear in the division heading into this one with a record of 4-13, 6.5 games out. They'd snapped a three-game losing streak the previous day with an 8-1 victory over the New York Mets at Citi Field. Joe Blanton would be taking the mound for the Phils, with Shairon Martis getting the ball for Washington. The two pitchers had previously squared off at Nationals Park on April 16, with the Nats coming out on top by a score of 8-2. It was their first win of 2009 after opening the season with seven consecutive losses.

As the game got underway, one might be led to believe a pitchers duel was in store as Blanton struck out the side in order in the top of the first and Martis was unharmed by a two-out walk to Chase Utley in the bottom half. It turned out to be apropos of nothing as the Nationals scored twice in the second thanks to a sacrifice fly by Alberto Gonzalez and RBI single by Martis. The Phillies matched the Nats in their half of the frame as Greg Dobbs singled home Jayson Werth before Raul Ibanez scored on a Lou Marson double play grounder to tie it.

Washington wasted little time breaking the deadlock, as a Nick Johnson walk to lead off the third was followed by a booming two-run homer off the batter's eye in center by Ryan Zimmerman to give the Nationals a 4-2 lead. Two batters later, Elijah Dukes made it 5-2 when he sent a soaring blast onto Ashburn Alley beyond the seats in left-center. The score remained the same until the top of the fifth, when Zimmerman led off with his second homer of the night, a cannon shot off the facing of the second deck in left to make it 6-2. Adam Dunn followed with a single before a one-out walk to Austin Kearns brought Blanton's night to a close. Jack Taschner took over and got out of the inning without any further damage to keep the Phillies at arm's length.

The Phillies didn't get their half of the fifth off to quite the start the Nationals did, as Taschner batted for himself and popped out to open the frame. The Phils got a threat going, however, by playing station-to-station baseball as singles by Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Utley loaded the bases with one out. Ryan Howard made sure the opportunity wouldn't go to waste, as he deposited a hanging two-strike breaking ball from Martis into the bushes beyond the fence in center for a grand slam and just like that, the game was tied at 6-6. Ibanez would add a two-out single in the fifth, but the inning ended without any further scoring.

Both teams would score in the sixth, but were ultimately left wanting more. The Nationals used a double by Anderson Hernandez and walks to Zimmerman, Dunn, and Dukes to go on top by a score of 7-6. The last of those walks was issued by Clay Condrey, who came on to replace Taschner and escaped further trouble by getting Kearns to fly to center with two outs and the bases loaded. Marson led off the home half of the sixth with a walk, at which point Martis was relieved by Julian Tavarez, who served up a double to Pedro Feliz, which sent Marson to third. Rollins followed with a pop fly to shallow left that landed safely for another double to score Marson with the tying run while Feliz held at third. After Victorino grounded back to the mound, Mike Hinckley was called upon to replace Tavarez and promptly hit Utley with a pitch to again load the bases for Howard. There'd be no repeat performance this time, though, as a bullet by Howard was snared by Johnson at the first base bag for an inning-ending double play as Utley had no chance to retreat.

Things settled down in the seventh, as Condrey worked a perfect top half of the frame while Kip Wells took over for the Nationals and did the same in the bottom half. Again, this turned out to be an aberration, as there were some serious fireworks still to come. In fact, the best were saved for last.

Scott Eyre got the call for the Phillies in the eighth, but it was safe to say he didn't have it on this night. Hernandez walked to start the inning and would soon trot home ahead of Johnson, who dropped a bomb into the second deck in right to put the Nationals back on top, 9-7. The pattern repeated itself when Zimmerman walked and Dunn unloaded a drive deep to the seats in right for Washington's fifth homer of the night and an 11-7 lead. It seemed like deja vu all over again Dukes followed with a walk, but by that point J.A. Happ had warmed up sufficiently enough to take over for the bewildered Eyre. Happ would issue a two-out walk to Gonzalez, but got through the remainder of the eighth unscathed. For the second time, the Phils found themselves trailing by four runs. They had six outs to work with, and as it turned out, one more dramatic comeback left in them.

The bottom of the eighth began with Garrett Mock on the mound for the Nationals, with Justin Maxwell taking over for Dunn in left. Inserting the speedy Maxwell for the lead-footed Dunn seemed like a sensible enough move, and it would end up playing a factor, though not in the way intended. After Mock struck out Marson leading off the inning, Feliz singled and advanced to third on a double by Rollins. Victorino lifted a sacrifice fly to make it 11-8 before Utley singled to score Rollins and send Mock to the showers with the score now 11-9. Feeling things starting to slip away, Washington manager Manny Acta summoned his closer, Joel Hanrahan, from the bullpen. Hanrahan would be plagued by control issues, as he uncorked a wild pitch to send Utley to second before walking Howard and Werth to load the bases for Ibanez. Perhaps sensing the struggling Hanrahan would groove a pitch to get ahead in the count, Ibanez jumped on a first-ball fastball and sent a screaming line drive to right just inside the foul pole for a grand slam and a stunning 13-11 Phillies lead that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. It was the second slam of the night for the Phils, the fourth time in franchise history they'd accomplished that feat. Hanrahan struck out Matt Stairs (pinch-hitting for Happ) to end the inning, but not before six runs had crossed.

Despite all the heroics, the Phillies weren't out of the woods as the Nationals had the top of the order due up in the ninth. To that point, the second through fifth spots in Washington's order were responsible for five homers and nine RBI. With Brad Lidge unavailable due to a knee injury, Ryan Madson would handle the closing chores for the Phils. On a night where power took center stage, Hernandez tried to start a last-ditch rally by bunting his way on, which he did successfully to give the Nats a leadoff baserunner and bring the tying run to the plate. Madson came back to get Johnson on a fly to left and Zimmerman on a liner to center, and because of the defensive switch made in the previous inning, would face Maxwell instead of Dunn with two outs. Maxwell went down swinging to end the game as the Phillies came away with a resilient 13-11 victory in a game they never led until Ibanez's big swing in the eighth. Happ got the win, Hanrahan the loss, the first decision for either pitcher on the season. Madson's save was his first of 2009.

The Phillies would have a much easier time the next night, as they cruised to a 7-1 win over the Nationals. Washington would avert a sweep by salvaging a 4-1 victory in the series finale. After an up-and-down first half of the 2009 campaign, the Phils caught fire in the second half, ultimately taking home their third straight NL East title with a record of 93-69, six games ahead of the second-place Marlins. They'd defeat the Colorado Rockies (three games to one) in the NLDS and Los Angeles Dodgers (four games to one) in the NLCS, but were denied a second straight World Series crown as the New York Yankees prevailed in the Fall Classic, four games to two. The Nats were never able to escape the NL East basement nor improve on the previous season's win total, finishing 34 games behind the Phillies at 59-103.

As previously mentioned, this was the fourth time in which the Phillies hit two grand slams in the same game. The others were Ralph Miller and Lee Meadows in an 11-6 win over the Boston Braves on April 28, 1921; Billy McMillon and Mike Lieberthal in a 12-3 win over the San Francisco Giants on August 18, 1997; along with Tomas Perez and Jason Michaels in an 18-5 win over the Atlanta Braves on September 9, 2003.

Personal Recollection: I've said before that the majority of Random Past Games I write about will be games I saw in person. A good amount of those games will be ones I attended while on the Sunday plan that my family had from 1979-2001 before switching over to our current plan in 2002. This game against the Nationals happened to be on the plan, and I wanted to mix in a game from the current era at some point, so there you go.

The first thing that I remember is that it was unseasonably hot on that April night, with temperatures near 90. An early start to "Hittin' Season" maybe. The ball was flying out that night, but there was nothing cheap about any of those home runs. The shortest one as far as distance is concerned was the grand slam by Raul Ibanez, but that was hit so hard it never had time to do anything else. It was just not a night for the pitchers, especially Scott Eyre. He probably could've gone through the Nationals order three or four times and not gotten anyone out. That's just the way it works sometimes. Eyre had a lot more good outings than bad ones in his time as a Phillie, and he's the type of guy who could always just laugh off a game like this, especially considering the Phillies came out on top.

Since I was at the game, I didn't know about Tom McCarthy's "Piazza Territory" remark until after the fact. See, the Elijah Dukes homer reached Ashburn Alley on a fly, which is not something that's happened very often at Citizens Bank Park. The first player to do it was Mike Piazza in 2005 while he was still with the Mets. T-Mac, of course, grew up a Mets fan and spent some time broadcasting for them between stints with the Phillies. Put two and two together, and you get quite a reaction. I certainly have my issues with T-Mac as an announcer, though I don't hold his past affiliation with the Mets against him. I mean, Chris Wheeler is the only current Phillies broadcaster who actually grew up as a fan of the team and you see how that's worked out. But yeah, "Piazza Territory" is a definite no-no. You say the ball lands in Ashburn Alley and leave it at that.

Back to the game, I've never made a secret of the fact that I'm a pitching/defense first kind of guy, but there's just that special feeling you get from a grand slam. All through the years I was playing, I always wondered what it would be like to experience it firsthand. It took me about 11 years to find out, but I eventually did and it was awesome. Let's face it, though, the Devlin League is much different than Major League Baseball. As great as the reaction was to Ryan Howard's that night, the ballpark was in an absolute state of delirium after Ibanez hit his. I took a long time for what we just saw to really sink in. There's always that buzz leaving the park after a win. Sometimes it lingers longer than others, depending on the circumstances. This was probably the craziest I've ever seen it for a game so early in the season, with only the Mariano Duncan grand slam off Lee Smith on Mothers Day in 1993 and Kevin Millwood's no-hitter in 2003 coming anywhere close.

With all the World Champions stuff going on and the death of Harry Kalas, this was a pretty hectic time for the Phillies, as the entire 2009 season seemed to be. A game like this served as a good reminder that it was OK to focus on what was happening on the field as well. Maybe the reaction was a release of some pent-up emotion and energy. In any case, it was absolutely memorable.

That's my story on April 27, 2009. Do you remember this game? If so, feel free to share your own recollections!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Random Past Phillie: Roger Mason

Name: Roger Leroy Mason
Position: Relief Pitcher
Born: September 18, 1957 in Bellaire, Michigan
Acquired: From the San Diego Padres in exchange for Tim Mauser on July 3, 1993
Phillies Debut: July 4, 1993
Final Phillies Game: April 23, 1994
Uniform Number: 48
Career Elsewhere: Tigers (1984), Giants (1985-87), Astros (1989), Pirates (1991-92), Padres (1993), Mets (1994)

About Roger Mason: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." It's a line we've all heard before. It can sometimes apply to a writer whose personal opinion can skew his/her objectivity when it comes to describing an event or person. It can also occur with the passage of time, when our memories of a particular person or event can get a little muddled and we leave out certain details. Despite this, we remain convinced things occurred exactly as we remember and are shocked to find out otherwise. When it comes to Roger Mason's brief tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies, the first thing that comes to mind is the lanky righty reliever's brilliant postseason performance. He pitched so well, his status among some Phillies fans borders on legendary. As is the case with most legends, however, some of the details of Mason's exploits are slightly exaggerated. But more on that later.

Roger Mason's journey in professional baseball began on September 21, 1980 when the Detroit Tigers signed him as an undrafted free agent. The 6'6" righty made his on-field pro debut the following year for Macon in the South Atlantic League, where he went 10-10 with a 3.89 ERA in 26 starts. Mason worked his way up the organizational ladder in Detroit before joining the parent club as a September callup in 1984. The Michigan native made two starts among his five appearances for the eventual World Champion Tigers, going 1-1 with a save and a 4.50 ERA.

Mason would not get to pitch in his home state beyond 1984, as the Tigers dealt him to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for outfielder Alejandro Sanchez (who played in 15 games with the Phillies in 1982 and 1983) on April 5, 1985. Used exclusively as a starter, Mason appeared in 21 games for the Giants over parts of the 1985 through 1987 seasons, going 5-8 with a 4.05 ERA. He was granted free agency after spending the entire 1988 campaign in the minors and signed with the Houston Astros, where he allowed three runs over an inning and 1/3 in two relief appearances with the big club. After being released by the Astros prior to the 1990 season, Mason signed on with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made it back to the big leagues in 1991, going 3-2 with a three saves and a 3.03 ERA in 24 appearances while being used strictly as a reliever, as he would be for the rest of his career.

The Pirates won the second of what would be three straight National League East titles in 1991, and it was the third time in Mason's career (along with the 1984 Tigers and 1987 Giants) in which he was a member of a team that made it to the playoffs. This would be the first time Mason was included on a postseason roster, however. He made the most of the opportunity, tossing four and 1/3 scoreless innings in three appearances against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, including a save in Pittsburgh's 1-0 victory in Game 5. That win gave the Pirates a 3-2 advantage in the NLCS, but home losses in Games 6 and 7 left them out of the World Series. Mason returned to the Buccos in 1992, and at age 35 spent an entire season in the Major Leagues for the first time. He went 5-7 with eight saves and a 4.09 ERA in 65 appearances before working three and 1/3 hitless innings in two NLCS outings. After falling in a 3-1 series hole against the Braves, the Pirates seemed poised to turn the tables in '92, winning Games 5 and 6 before taking a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth in Game 7. It wasn't to be, as Atlanta rallied for three runs, the last two coming on a two-out, two-run single by Francisco Cabrera to send the Braves to the World Series.

The 1992 season was a last hurrah for the Pirates, who didn't have the economic resources to keep their talent-laden roster together. Though they withstood the free agent departure of Bobby Bonilla and trade of John Smiley following the 1991 campaign, the losses of Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek after '92 proved fatal. Nearly two decades later, the Pirates still have yet to finish above .500 in any season since, an MLB record for futility.

Though he obviously didn't garner the headlines of Bonds and Drabek, Mason was among the Pirates who were purged, as he was released by Pittsburgh in November of 1992 before signing with the New York Mets shortly thereafter. Mason was a Met for all of 15 days, at which point he was traded to the San Diego Padres in a deal involving another ex-Phillie, as Mike Maddux headed to New York. He would compile a respectable 3.24 ERA in 34 appearances for the Padres in 1993, though his record was an unsightly 0-7. Mason's performance caught the attention of the Phillies, who were looking to add pieces for a playoff run while in the midst of a stunning worst-to-first turnaround. On July 3, the Phils and Padres swung a deal. It was a simple one-for-one swap of relief pitchers, as Mason headed to Philadelphia while Tim Mauser joined San Diego's bullpen.

The two pitchers would not only be switching coasts, they'd also be on opposite sides of the standings as the Padres were floundering near the bottom of the National League West. Yet when the trade was made, however, neither Mason nor Mauser had to go very far. The Phillies and Padres were in the middle of a four-game series against each other at Veterans Stadium (which featured the infamous doubleheader that ended at 4:40 AM) when the deal was announced, meaning the two hurlers simply had to switch clubhouses. Mason and Mauser each debuted for their new clubs in the finale of the four-game set on July 4, with Mason allowing an unearned run in two innings and Mauser working two scoreless frames in a game the Phillies won by a score of 8-4. In 34 appearances for the Phils, Mason was 5-5 with a 4.89 ERA. He was plagued by the longball after coming over from San Diego, allowing nine home runs in 49 and 2/3 innings. The Phillies captured the NL East title, meaning Mason would be participating in his third consecutive postseason. When it was all said and done, he'd end up being part of one of the biggest controversies in franchise history.

Mason's NLCS record remained unblemished in '93, as he pitched three scoreless innings in two appearances against the Braves. The third time against Atlanta proved to be the charm for Mason, as the Phillies upset the heavily-favored Braves in six games to advance to the World Series, where they'd take on the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays. Mason made his Fall Classic debut in Game 1, tossing a scoreless eighth inning in an 8-5 loss. He finally allowed a postseason run in Game 2, but that was all he gave up in an inning and 2/3 as the Phils evened the series with a 6-4 triumph. Mason worked two and 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 4 and was in line for the win before the Blue Jays rallied for six runs in the eighth for a stunning 15-14 victory and a 3-1 series lead. The Phillies stayed alive with a 2-0 win in Game 5 behind Curt Schilling's five-hit shutout, but found themselves down 5-1 after five innings in Game 6. Running out of time, Mason was called upon to keep the Phils within striking distance. Once again, he'd come through.

Roberto Alomar led off the sixth with a single, but he stayed at first as Mason retired the next three Blue Jays batters in order. The Phillies erupted in the top of the seventh, putting five runs on the board to lead 6-5 before Mason retired Toronto in order in the bottom of the inning. The score remained the same heading to the bottom of the eighth, and quite a few people will tell you Mason worked another perfect frame to send the game to the ninth with the Phils on top, 6-5. The fact is, he didn't. Mason did his part, however, getting Joe Carter on a fly ball to Pete Incaviglia in left to start the inning. Jim Fregosi then decided to replace Mason with David West, who walked John Olerud and was replaced at that point by Larry Andersen. After Alomar grounded out, Andersen hit Tony Fernandez with a pitch and walked Ed Sprague to load the bases before getting Pat Borders to pop out to Mickey Morandini at second to retire the side. Mitch Williams came in for the ninth and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mason returned to the Phillies in 1994, but after compiling a 1-1 record and 5.19 ERA in six appearances, his contract was sold to the Mets. He went 2-4 with a save and a 3.51 ERA in 41 appearances for New York in the strike-shortened '94 season, which turned out to be his last in the big leagues. After undergoing shoulder surgery following the 1994 campaign, Mason went to Spring Training with the Mets in 1995, but sat out the season after failing to make the club and never surfaced elsewhere beyond that point.

Personal Recollection: The first memory I have of Roger Mason comes from when he was with the Pirates in 1991. The Phillies were riding a 13-game winning streak and taking on the Buccos at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh held a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning, but the Phillies loaded the bases with one out for Ricky Jordan and Mason came in to face him. I remember Mason throwing a fastball high and tight that Jordan tried to get out of the way of, but the ball ended up hitting Jordan's bat and bounced right to Mason to start an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play. The score remained the same and the winning streak ended at 13.

Mason had a herky-jerky delivery with a real high leg kick and long stride toward the plate before a low finish. Ryan Madson's delivery early in his career reminded me a little of Mason's.

I'm sure it's happened at other points in Phillies history, but the trade that brought Mason to the Phils is one of just two I can remember where the teams involved in the deal were in the same place. The other was when Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell came over from the Mets for Juan Samuel. That one happened right after the two teams had played that day and I remember the clubhouses weren't opened up until the deal was announced. It was really a weird situation, though that move came after the final game of the series had been played. The Mason-Mauser deal occurred during the middle of the series, so it had to be pretty strange for those guys.

Mason was pretty underwhelming for the Phillies in the regular season, but the playoffs were a different animal. Then of course, there's Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. While a lot of people believe Mason worked the entire eighth inning of that game, until recently I had actually forgotten he got the first out before being removed. For some reason, I thought David West started the inning before giving way to Larry Andersen. Mason was dealing at that point and made his case to stay in, especially considering how gassed West, Andersen, and Mitch Williams were. Of course, if Mason had stayed in and lost the game, then there would've been the argument on the other side. Sometimes you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. We'll just never know. It's amazing how the legend grew over time, though. You run into so many people who insist Mason pitched the eighth inning and it's not the types who never watched a Phillies game in the years between 1993 and 2008, either. Hell, I think I've even heard some players who were in that series mention the same thing. One thing's for sure, though. The guy was money in the postseason.

That's my story on Roger Mason. Feel free to share your own recollections.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

We the People ... who hate Joe Buck

Confession: I’m a legal nerd. I love all topics legal, as long as they involve something juicy. Keep your patent law. Give me controversy. I blame it on Professor Washington, a journalism instructor at Temple, who is also an attorney and columnist. It was in his classroom where I became staunchly interested in First Amendment issues, specifically free speech and free press.

Based on that, it comes as no surprise that I would jump all over recent reports that fans attending last Saturday’s game against the Cubs were forced (told?) to wear their “I Hate Joe Buck” tee-shirts inside out. The game, as we know, was broadcast on Fox. As tempting and easy as it may be, I’m not here to bash Joe Buck. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about that man’s existence.

My first thought was "yup, kissing the ole corporate arse." Then my head started swirling around thoughts of free speech violations. Before I jump into any legal mumbo jumbo, let’s put this out on the table: Citizens Bank Park forced fans to wear their anti-Joe Buck shirts inside out because they didn’t want to bite the proverbial hand that was feeding them with a national audience. I think it is safe to say that the Phillies have a strong enough following -- they don’t need Fox. They don’t need Joe Buck.

There are 162 games in a regular season. Fox broadcasts an average of 5-10 Phillies games during the regular season. That is less than 10%. If we play in the World Series, as we did in 2008 and 2009, we are forced to endure Fox coverage of an additional seven games. When you break down the numbers, we really aren’t forced to suffer through Fox’s drivel all that much.

I took a gander at the tickets I have for upcoming games. There is nothing on there about dress code. I reviewed the Phillies web site. I found nothing about dress code, not even under “Guest Code of Conduct.” Honestly, it seems their biggest concern is being sued for bats and balls that “may leave the field.” (I could write a blog about the liability of permitting bats and balls to leave the field, but I promise to suppress the nerd in me from doing that).

Each year, the city of Philadelphia hosts thousands of domestic and international tourists who flock here to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. To some visitors, having free speech is a right they will experience only while a tourist in this country. And while I can distinguish the difference between the plight of those with no free speech and our fans not being permitted to wear anti-Joe Buck shirts, it begs the question when does it become too much? How far will the envelope be pushed?

What if CBP banned the following:
1. Muck the Fets shirts;
2. Yankees jerseys;
3. Anything regarding the immediate past or next Presidential Election;
4. Drunk Phils Fans shirts.

Each of the above could be banned for a variety of reasons and I could make arguments for both sides. My point is: it's ridiculous to ban any of them for any reason -- just like it was ridiculous to quash the anti-Buck shirts. When free speech and expression is muffled to satisfy
corporate greed (and their public persona), we begin a slippery slope toward becoming a nation that doesn't value the very things that make this a great place to be. Further, by quashing the anti-Buck shirts, CBP also trampled on elements that makes baseball fun -- competition and heckling to name a couple. Wearing an "I Hate Joe Buck" shirt is no different from chanting "you took steroids" at Andy Pettitte during the World Series in 2009.

I think the next time a game I’m attending is changed to 8:05 p.m. (especially a Sunday game!), I’m going to don a shirt that says “I Hate ESPN."

I will be certain to blog about my experience entering the park wearing that shirt.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Not enough for two columns

After the world went nuts over Wilson Valdez winning a game I thought of how pecular and random some of these late inning games tend to become. That same game saw Carlos Ruiz playing third base. Last year we saw Roy Oswalt shag a ball in the outfield while Raul Ibanez manned first base. This made me think of what would happen if you randomized your positions and lineup to start a game. I took the 25 man roster and had assign a number to ever player and whoever came up 1-9 I assigned them those positions on the baseball field. I then randomized the lineup and here is what I came up with

Jose Contreras RF
David Herndon SS
Ross Gload 1B
Cliff Lee C
Raul Ibanez P
Placido Polanco CF
Danys Baez 3B
Antonio Bastardo LF
J.C. Romero 2B

That is bonkers that on a lineup consisting of 6 pitchers none of them were assigned the number to make them the starter. I think most of the production from this lineup would come out of the 6th position. This also leaves the bullpen with mainly starters but we would have one hell of a bench.


Over the weekend I was listening to sports radio and the topic of discussion was who to keep and who to sign after the 2012 season. The names on the table were Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Ryan Madson. The majority of the callers said Cole Hamels and I agree but they also said Ryan Madson which I disagree with. In terms of Jimmy Rollins there were a lot of opinions most of which were divided between keeping Rollins or trying to sign Jose Reyes. Out of the two I would rather keep Rollins even though Reyes is a better hitter he would command more salary.

My solution to fixing the SS situation while keeping the payroll low would be to trade Ryan Madson now. The closer position commands a high salary in regard to the amount of innings they put in. Plus the save is an overblown stat. (which is a bad time to talk about this since Leo Nunez blew that game last night) You could promote someone from within the organization to fill that role (Stutes?) who has a low salary. What I would look for in return is a shortstop in the minors right now who is on track to be in a MLB starting lineup in 2013. I know that the Phillies have sold out 162 games in a row but the team is starting to get old and current players on the roster are going to get raises with each passing year on their contract. But what do I know I went to art school and read a book one time.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Random Past Game: June 14, 1987

Date of Game: Sunday, June 14, 1987
Location: Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium)
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Final Score: Phillies 11, Expos 6
Winning Pitcher: Don Carman
Losing Pitcher: Lary Sorensen
Home Runs: Mike Schmidt (3), Darren Daulton, Von Hayes, Reid Nichols

Phillies Starting Lineup

Milt Thompson, cf
Jeff Stone, lf
Juan Samuel, 2b
Mike Schmidt, 3b
Von Hayes, 1b
Glenn Wilson, rf
Darren Daulton, c
Steve Jeltz, ss
Don Carman, p

Expos Starting Lineup

Casey Candaele, cf
Mitch Webster, rf
Tim Raines, lf
Tim Wallach, 3b
Hubie Brooks, ss
Andres Galarraga, 1b
Vance Law, 2b
Mike Fitzgerald, c
Lary Sorensen, p

About This Game: If you are a fan of Seinfeld, the date of this Random Past Game may ring a bell. You may be confused by the details, however. Or it's quite possible that from watching the show, you may have convinced yourself the events related to the Phillies on that particular date as described in the episode really happened. If you are unfamiliar with what I've just written, here's a little rundown:

In the Seinfeld episode entitled "The Boyfriend" (originally aired on February 12, 1992), Jerry befriends Keith Hernandez, the former star first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. This new friendship dismays both Kramer and Newman, with the latter saying he despises Hernandez. The reason for this stems from an incident that occurred on June 14, 1987 following a Mets-Phillies game. Newman recounts that Hernandez made an error that led to a five-run ninth inning for the Phils, who ultimately won the game as a result. Following the game, Kramer and Newman crossed paths with Hernandez in the parking lot, with Newman derisively saying "Nice game, pretty boy!" to Hernandez. In a parody of the John F. Kennedy assassination (specifically the Abraham Zapruder film and the Oliver Stone movie JFK, which had been released around the same time), Kramer was spit on seconds later, with Newman also being struck. Kramer and Newman believed that Hernandez was the spitter until it was revealed later in the episode that Roger McDowell (a member of the Mets in '87 and a Phillie from 1989-91) was the guilty party, acting in retaliation for Kramer and Newman heckling McDowell in the bullpen and later dumping a beer on him.

The story in the episode was compelling enough to lead one to believe Kramer and Newman were describing events that occurred during an actual game, though that isn't the case. In reality, the Phillies were in Montreal taking on the Expos on that Sunday afternoon. Though it probably wasn't worthy of being a plot element on a sitcom episode, this game did turn out to be pretty memorable for the Phils, as the greatest player in franchise history put on a vintage power display while achieving a notable milestone to boot.

After a surprising second-place finish in 1986, the Phillies were expected to be the main National League East threat to overtake the defending World Champion Mets in 1987. The preseason hype would quickly evaporate, however, when the Phils got off to a 1-8 start and ultimately fell ten games below .500 in early May. They'd turn things around by the end of the season's second month before climbing back to the break-even mark in early June, but a three-game losing streak had them in fifth place with a record 27-30 entering this getaway day game in Montreal. The Expos had taken the first two games of the three-game weekend series by scores of 13-6 and 7-5, giving them a record of 32-27. Montreal sat in third place, 5.5 games behind the East-leading Cardinals, while the Phillies were 9.5 games off the pace. Don Carman got the starting nod for the Phils on this day, with Lary Sorensen on the hill for Montreal.

Neither team scored in the first two innings, with the only offense for the Phillies coming on a Von Hayes double in the second. The Expos got two hits in the bottom of the second, but the inning ended when Glenn Wilson gunned down Vance Law trying to stretch a single into a double. The Phils would strike for four runs in the third as Jeff Stone singled home Steve Jeltz with the game's first run before Mike Schmidt belted a three-run homer to make it 4-0. It was also the 1999th hit of Schmidt's career, so nearly two months after hitting the 500th home run of his Hall of Fame career, Michael Jack was on the verge of another milestone.

Montreal would threaten in the third after putting their first two runners on base, but Carman was able to work out of trouble without any runs crossing the plate. That wouldn't be the case in the fourth, as an RBI single by Mike Fitzgerald made it a 4-1 game. The score remained the same until the sixth when Schmidt stepped up to the plate with one out and wasted no time picking up career hit number 2000. Fittingly, it left the ballpark. Schmidt's second homer of the day was a solo shot off Curt Brown (who'd relieved Sorensen in the fifth) to give the Phillies a 5-1 lead. It seemed like a safe advantage, as Carman retired the Expos in order in both the fifth and sixth innings, but the Phils had another onslaught coming, which they would end up needing when all was said and done.

Darren Daulton led off the seventh with a home run to increase the lead to 6-1, though it seemed like that would be all the scoring for the Phillies in the frame when Jeltz struck out and Carman grounded back to the mound. Milt Thompson walked to keep the inning alive, he'd steal second and come around to score on a Stone single to make it 7-1. Stone took second on Mitch Webster's throw home, which allowed him to score the third run of the inning and eighth for the Phils on the day when Juan Samuel followed with a single. Randy St. Claire was called in to relieve Brown and Schmidt greeted him with his third home run of the afternoon, a two-run shot for a 10-1 Phillies advantage. As if the start to St. Claire's outing hadn't gone inauspiciously enough, Hayes went deep immediately afterwards and the Phils had an 11-1 lead. Wilson grounded out to second for the final out, but not before six runs had crossed in the inning.

The three roundtrippers by Schmidt marked the third time in his career he'd hit at least that many in a game. He also hit three against the San Francisco Giants at Veterans Stadium on July 7, 1979 to go along with the four he hit in a 10-inning game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on April 17, 1976. The six RBI tied Michael Jack's career high for a nine-inning game. Schmidt knocked in eight runs in his four-homer game. He would not get a chance to do more damage against the Expos on this day, as manager John Felske elected to remove Schmidt from the game in favor of Rick Schu in the bottom of the seventh.

Carman continued to deal as he retired the first two batters he faced in the seventh, but he would be let down by some shaky defense as errors by Schu and Jeltz led to two unearned runs in the inning to get the Expos on the board at 11-3. Schu would make another error in the seventh, but this one did not result in any further scoring. Montreal continued to chip away with three more runs in the eighth thanks to an RBI double by Andres Galarraga and a two-run homer by Reid Nichols (who entered the game as part of a double switch in the top half of the inning) which ended Carman's day. Kent Tekulve took over on the mound and the bespectacled sidearmer put out the fire, retiring all four batters he faced to finish off an 11-6 victory for the Phillies. Carman got the win to improve to 4-5 on the season, Sorenson dropped to 3-3 with the loss. Had Schmidt stayed in the game, he would've had a shot at a fourth home run as his spot in the order came up with two outs in the ninth. Instead, Schu batted and singled off Bob McClure.

The win would be the next-to-last for the Phillies under John Felske, who was relieved of his duties four days later with the club's record at 29-32. Lee Elia took over and went 51-50 the rest of the way as the Phils finished a disappointing fourth in the NL East with an 80-82 record, 15 games behind the eventual National League Champion Cardinals, who edged out the Mets by three games and the Expos by four.

Schmidt's 1987 season was a last hurrah of sorts, as he hit .293 (his highest batting average aside from the 1981 strike year, when he hit .316) with 35 home runs and 113 RBI. Michael Jack hit .249 with 12 homers and 62 RBI in a 1988 campaign that was limited to 108 games due to a shoulder injury before tearfully walking away from the game on May 29, 1989 after determining his skills had eroded to the point where he could no be an effective player. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, his first year of eligibility.

In case you were wondering, the Mets defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium by a score of 7-3 that day. Hernandez was 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI. He did not make any errors.

Personal Recollection: I've mentioned before that the 1988 season was the first one where I really followed the Phillies from start to finish, but 1987 was when I really started to develop an awareness and understanding of the game. I think the fact that it was my first year playing the game had a lot to do with it. In fact, I was just coming home from a t-ball game when I tuned in. In addition to my parents and sister, I believe my uncle along with my grandparents on my mom's side were there as well, as they'd occasionally attend my games. My grandpop on my mom's side (he passed away in 1992) was the person most responsible for my love and appreciation for the history of baseball, as he'd often stay up and talk about the game with me whenever I stayed over my grandparents' house. Most of the stories had to do with the players he grew up watching. I wanted to be able to keep up with him, so I took it upon myself to learn about these players and the game's overall history.

Back to the game. To be honest, I don't recall much about Mike Schmidt's first or third homers, but I do remember his second. It wasn't so much because of the milestone, it was more because of Andy Musser's call. It was a no-doubt about it blast to left and I remember Musser saying, "Raines doesn't even move! How's THAT for career hit number 2000?" I was too young to realize it at the time, but looking back, that Schmidt homer was very similar to his 1980 division-winner in Montreal that resulted in Musser's famous "HE BURIED IT! HE BURIED IT!" call. Musser was certainly no Harry Kalas (Harry did the middle innings on radio for non-cable TV games, I don't believe I've ever heard his call on this) but I never had the disdain for him that a lot of other fans seemed to have.

I also remember the Darren Daulton home run, probably because it wasn't such a common occurrence in those days. My mom was always a fan of Dutch's, even back then when it seemed like nobody else was, so you can imagine she had a pretty positive reaction there. When the defense came a little unglued in the seventh, Harry remarked that the Phillies were "making errors of CO-mission and O-mission" as he would occasionally do when the Phils weren't playing crisp fundamental baseball. Of course, I had no idea what that meant at the time, but it sure did sound good.

Also notable is the fact the Phillies scored 11 runs that day, or "ee-o-leven" as Harry pronounced it. I don't believe Harry ever gave any reason for why he said it that way, but I would guess it comes from the song "Eee-o-eleven" which was sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the original 1960 version of Oceans 11 that also starred Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin among other Rat Pack members. Taking into consideration Harry's affinity for Sinatra, this would seem to be a logical explanation.

I knew before doing research for this article that the Phillies played the Expos on June 14, 1987, as I'd looked up the information years earlier to see what really took place on that day. I'm a big Seinfeld fan, and that episode is one of my all-time favorites. The Hernandez storyline, JFK parody, and the subplot with George trying to get an extension on his unemployment compensation were classic. Add to that a story that involves the Phillies beating the Mets, and it's pretty much flawless!

That's my story on June 14, 1987. Do you remember this game? If so, feel free to share your own recollections!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

JMurl's Craft Beer of the Week and Fantasy Focus

JMurl's Craft Brew of the Week

Flower Power IPA

Brewed by: Ithaca Beer Company/Ithaca, NY

Style: American India Pale Ale

Abv: 7.5%

Pours a bright wheat orange color with a thick creamy head....aromas reek of delicious hoppiness, lemon, orange, and citrus with some pine...smooth mouth medium light body with a HUGE excellent bitter finish...get a sense of sweet malt but always has big hop backbone...5 out of 5 burps

Rating system:

5 burps- The cream of the crop...your taste buds will thank you
4 burps- Good brew, but not the crème de la crème that would get 5 burps
3 burps- Okay, but “I'm not a big fan” and its got alcohol in it, so I'll drink it
2 burps- “Do you have any Bud Light instead of this?”
1 burp- This brew sucks so bad, it make you want to run to the closest AA meeting

Start Em':

Justin Turner (Mets-3B) ...Hit .342 with 20 RBIs and 9 runs scored in the month of May...only owned in 34% of Yahoo leagues....snatch him up if he is still available....faces Milwaukee and Pittsburgh this week...

Corey Paterson (Blue Jays-OF) …Batting .326 in his last 10 games with 3 dingers and 8 RBIs...faces the Royals this week and they have the second-to-worst team ERA in the majors of 4.63 and are worst in the majors in runs allowed (303)...owned in only 39% of Yahoo leagues...

Dillon Gee (Mets-SP) ...Has been relatively effective in his last three starts, working 20.2 innings with a 3.05 ERA and earning the W in all three starts...also has 33 strikeouts in 47 innings this year...only owned in 25% of Yahoo leagues...

Sit Em':

Dan Uggla (Braves-2B) ...Batted .202 in April and .160 in May with only 2 HR's...why is he still on your roster???...pickup Danny Espinosa who plays 2B for the Nationals... he batting .412 over his last five games, and leads all second baseman with 8 home runs since May 1....

Hanley Rameriez(Marlins-SS) ...the once “fantasy stud” is more like a “fantasy dud” this season batting .210 with only 4 HR's...has only 8 hits in his last ten games and has batted in a whopping 3 runs in that same time period...

Jon Lester (Red Sox-SP) ...has given up four or more runs in four of his past five starts, compiling a 5.50 ERA in the month of May. The Boston ace was also torched for seven runs off of eight hits and four walks in his most recent outing against the White Sox where he only lasted 5 2/3 innings...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Random Past Season: 1997

Year: 1997
Record: 68-94 (5th place in NL East, 33 games behind Atlanta Braves)
Manager: Terry Francona
Coaches: Galen Cisco, Chuck Cottier, Hal McRae, Brad Mills, Joe Rigoli, John Vukovich
General Manager: Lee Thomas
All-Star: Curt Schilling
Top Draft Pick: J.D. Drew (1st Round, 2nd overall)

About 1997: In all professional sports, every franchise must go through a rebuilding phase at some point. It could come at the end of a long run of success, when age catches up with a team's core and the time comes for youth to be served. On the other hand, a club could realize its nucleus just isn't championship material and the decision may be made to take a step back in hopes of eventually taking several steps forward. By the time the 1997 season rolled around for the Philadelphia Phillies, it had been decided that the lightning-in-a-bottle format that landed the team in the World Series four years earlier was no longer a viable plan on which to build the organization. With that in mind, the process of rebuilding the ballclub began. The results seemed destined to be historically ugly at first, but out of nowhere, the Phils suddenly transformed to the best team in the National League over the season's final two months. It was a season that also saw a change at the very top of the organization, the trade of a franchise mainstay, a pitching performance for the record books, and sadly, the sudden passing of a Philadelphia icon. When all was said and done, the Phillies found themselves in last place for the second straight season, but at least there seemed to be a reason to believe that better days would eventually come.

After a 67-95 season produced a last-place finish for the Phillies in 1996, general manager Lee Thomas decided to fire his longtime friend Jim Fregosi and hire Terry Francona as the ballclub's new skipper. On the field, Mike Lieberthal was given full-time catching duties while highly touted prospects Scott Rolen and Wendell Magee would man third base and center field, respectively. First baseman Rico Brogna was acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Mets and right fielder Danny Tartabull decided to sign with the Phils during Spring Training when it became obvious his only other alternative would be sitting out the season. Mickey Morandini and Kevin Stocker returned as the team's double play combination, while Gregg Jefferies was back to give it another go in left field. A healthy Curt Schilling would anchor a starting rotation that also included veteran newcomers Mark Leiter and Mark Portugal along with a bunch of question marks. Ricky Bottalico was back as closer after making the National League All-Star squad the previous season, while Ken Ryan would look to build off a strong '96 campaign of his own as the setup man.

Expectations for the 1997 Phillies were certainly not great, as most experts felt they would lose close to 100 games, if not more. Not helping the cause was the fact that five pitchers were placed on the disabled list before the season began. Elbow issues put Portugal and Ryan on the shelf, a triceps injury put Mike Grace out of commission, Tyler Green would be out indefinitely while recovering from the shoulder surgery that ended his 1996 season before it began, and Rule 5 pick Edgar Ramos was sidelined by a hand injury. It was seen as more bad news for a team that already appeared to be in for a long year.

The 1997 season began auspiciously enough for the Phillies as Schilling shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers on two hits over eight brilliant innings, striking out 11 in a 3-0 victory. It would be the club's high-water mark, as the Phils went 3-6 on their opening road trip before dropping six of eight on their first homestand. By the time the calendar turned to May, the Phillies were in last place with an 8-16 record, 10.5 games out of first. May wasn't a whole lot better, as the Phils went 11-18 to sit at 19-34 by the end of the month. As bad as things were, they would soon get a whole lot worse. The Phillies played 26 games in June of 1997, and won just four of them. A 2-20 stretch leading into the All-Star break left the team at an embarrassing 24-61. They were 32 games behind the eventual division champion Atlanta Braves, and seemed poised to challenge the single-season loss record of 120 set by the 1962 New York Mets.

During this time, the Phils selected Florida State outfielder J.D. Drew with the second overall pick in the Draft. Proclaimed to be "The Next Mickey Mantle" by agent Scott Boras, Drew had no intention of ever playing for the Phils and would ultimately go unsigned. He was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals with the fifth overall pick in 1998. Though Drew has never really lived up to the expectations placed on him, Phillies fans still let him know they'll never forget the way he slighted the organization every time he steps to the plate in Philadelphia.

There weren't a whole lot of bright spots to be found during the dismal first half, but Schilling was certainly among them, staking his claim as one of the game's top pitchers. Much like Steve Carlton in his superhuman 1972 season, the Phillies became a good team on days Schilling pitched. Between May 23 and June 24, he was the only starting pitcher on the team to record a victory. Bottalico was effective on those rare occasions where he had a lead to protect, while Rolen was proving to be in a league of his own among National League rookies. One unexpected surprise was Darren Daulton. Thought to be finished after recurring knee problems ended his 1996 season after five games, Dutch shocked everyone by hitting close to .300 for much of the first half while playing a competent right field after a broken foot ended Tartabull's season (which turned out to be his last) after seven hitless at-bats. Those strong performances weren't nearly enough to offset the injuries, ineffectiveness, and general ineptitude of the club, however.

Speaking of Daulton, his tenure with the Phillies (which began as a September callup in 1983, he'd been with the club continuously since 1985) came to a close on July 21, when he gave the OK to be traded to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins in exchange for outfielder Billy McMillon. It was a difficult decision to part with Daulton, but the deal was seen by many as a reward to Dutch for his years of hard work and perseverance through a countless number of injuries. Instead of spending what turned out to be his final season buried in last place, he was given another chance to win it all, which the Marlins ultimately did.

There was a significant change made for the organization off the field in 1997. Bill Giles stepped aside as club president in late June, turning the day-to-day reins over to David Montgomery with Giles staying on as chairman. The main focus for Giles was now trying to find a new place for the Phillies to play, as it was becoming evident that the organization couldn't remain financially competitive in Veterans Stadium. Needless to say, the team's poor performance was also a catalyst for the change.

Things didn't get much better for the Phillies on the field after returning from the All-Star break. On July 27, they were defeated at Dodger Stadium by a score of 7-1 to drop their record to 30-72. Losing 100 games for the first time since 1961 seemed to be a given, it was now a question of how close to the single-season record they could get. As awful as things were, what happened next was even more shocking. For whatever reason, the Phils got hot and stayed that way. Over the final 60 games of the season, their record was 38-22, which was tied with the New York Yankees for the best mark in Major League Baseball over that stretch. It wasn't a matter of the Phillies benefiting from a soft schedule, either, as they swept series from the playoff-bound Marlins, Yankees, and Houston Astros during that time. For the season, the Phils finished with a record of 68-94, which was still the worst in the National League but a one-game improvement over their 1996 output. Achieving such a record was so miraculous that Francona actually received two Manager of the Year votes.

Schilling finished the season with a 17-11 record and a 2.97 ERA. He struck out 319 batters, a franchise record and the most ever by a National League righthanded pitcher. Rolen hit .283 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI to take home unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors, becoming the first Phillie to take home the award since Dick Allen in 1964. Liberthal and Brogna both hit 20 home runs while Morandini hit .295 in the final season of his first tenure in Philadelphia. Midre Cummings took over in center after being claimed on waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates in July and hit .303 in 63 games. Minor league journeyman Tony Barron ended up seeing extended action in right after the Daulton trade and hit .286 in 57 games while Kevin Jordan and Kevin Sefcik turned in solid seasons off the bench. Aside from Schilling on the mound, Garrett Stephenson went 8-6 with a 3.15 ERA in his rookie season while Bottalico notched 34 saves for the second consecutive year.

On the negative side, the Magee experiment never panned out, as he was sent to the minors after batting .200 in 38 games. Jefferies hit .256 while struggling in left field. In addition to the hitless Tartabull, fellow veteran free agent acquisitions Rex Hudler, Derrick May, and Mark Parent also brought little to the club. Portugal's elbow miseries limited him to just three starts in 1997, going 0-2 with a 4.61 ERA. Leiter won 10 games, but his 17 losses led the league and along with it came a 5.67 ERA. Ryan was never able to regain his 1996 form, as a horrific 9.58 ERA in 20 appearances will attest. Matt Beech lost his first seven decisions en route to a 4-9 record with a 5.07 ERA. Calvin Maduro, Mike Mimbs, Bobby Munoz, and Scott Ruffcorn all had seasons that would best be forgotten. Jerry Spradlin appeared in 76 games out of the bullpen, but had a 4-8 record and 4.74 ERA to show for it.

In a transitional year, the Phillies had gone from embarrassingly bad to shockingly good with no middle ground. It remained to be seen if the Phils would be able to build off their late surge going forward, but it did at least provide a glimmer of hope for an organization that seemed to be spiraling out of control when the year began. Despite the strong finish, Thomas was relieved of his GM duties after the season. Ed Wade initally served as interim general manager but was eventually given the job on a full-time basis.

Anything happening on the field became insignificant during the early morning of Tuesday, September 9, 1997. Just hours after announcing a 13-4 Phillies win over the Mets at Shea Stadium, Richie Ashburn was stricken with a fatal heart attack in his hotel room. The 70-year old Ashburn was an iconic figure in Philadelphia and quite possibly its most beloved sports figure. Whitey had played for the Phils from 1948-59 before returning to the club as a broadcaster in 1963. He had been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Ashburn's death stunned the City of Philadelphia, as thousands of mourners paid their respects at a public viewing at Memorial Hall that lasted well into the night on September 12. When the Phillies eventually moved to Citizens Bank Park, the walkway behind center field was named Ashburn Alley in Whitey's honor, with a large bronze statue in his likeness being placed there.

Personal Recollection: The 1997 season was a turning point for me as a Phillies fan. It had long been established that the Phils were always going to be my team no matter what, but the first half of that season was a real test of how much I had invested in them. I turned 17 that summer and life was starting to lead me in various directions. Would the constant losing cause me to distance myself from the Phillies or would I continue to stick it out day after day? I think you know which way I went, and I decided if I can suffer through that, I don't think there is anything that I can't make it through.

One thing that drew me even closer to the Phillies in 1997 was the fact that my family finally got cable that spring, though it was actually the Flyers who were responsible for it happening. It all started two years earlier when the Flyers reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Since ESPN would be carrying some of the games in the Stanley Cup Finals, my sister came up with a plan to pay for a month of cable should the Flyers advance, then leave it up to my parents to decide what they wanted to do after that. Unfortunately, the Flyers were defeated by the New Jersey Devils in the Conference Finals and nothing more came of it. I kept this in mind and presented this plan to my parents as the Flyers took on the New York Rangers in the '97 Eastern Conference Finals. This time, however, I had an ace up my sleeve as I also informed them that Comcast SportsNet would soon be starting and carrying the majority of Phillies games starting in 1998. Like myself, my parents are fans of all Philadelphia teams, but they were able to deal with not being able to see the Flyers or Sixers that much. I knew it would be a different story with the Phillies. Sure enough, the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, the cable was installed and never taken out.

The final two months of the '97 season were amazing in that there really seemed to be no good reason for the Phillies to be playing so well. But it was definitely nice for everyone who suffered through that miserable first half. Man, was that team bad. They had 24 wins at the All-Star break and were 32 games out of first. Think about that. More than halfway through the season, they were more games out of first place than they had wins. That's not easy to do.

I think the game that best represented how poorly the ballclub played came on June 29 in Atlanta. The Phillies jumped to a 5-0 lead while Scott Ruffcorn held the Braves hitless over the first five innings. Ruffcorn was so wild, though, he was lifted with one out in the sixth despite having the no-hitter still in tact. Ron Blazier took over and walked Andruw Jones before giving up a run-scoring single to Mark Lemke. Keith Lockhart followed with a pinch-hit grand slam to tie the game at 5-5. The Braves went on to win, 6-5 and everyone was pretty much at a loss for words.

The Darren Daulton trade was the only one the Phillies made that season. It was tough seeing Dutch go, but they were doing him a favor. I've never been overly excited to see a team other than the Phils win a World Series, particularly another NL East team, but I was thrilled to see Daulton and Jim Eisenreich win it with the Marlins. Too bad it didn't quite happen for them four years earlier.

Prior to Roy Halladay last season, Curt Schilling's 1997 campaign was the best I'd ever seen by a Phillies pitcher since I began following the team. He went 17-11, but it's not out of the question he could've won 25 games with a better supporting cast. The game Schilling pitched against the Yankees on September 1 really caught everyone's attention, as he struck out 16 in a 5-1 victory that set the tone for a three-game sweep at the Vet. Regardless of your personal opinion of him, Schilling was a damn good pitcher and was close to untouchable when he was on top of his game.

Scott Rolen was barely eligible to win the NL Rookie of the Year in 1997 (a broken wrist ended his 1996 season while he had 130 at-bats, which is the limit to retain rookie eligibility the following year), but that doesn't take away from how good he was that season and the next few years in Philadelphia. Of course, we had no way of knowing how poorly things would end for him with the Phillies, but it was good while it lasted.

Like so many others in Philadelphia, I was devastated by the death of Richie Ashburn. I was just beginning my senior year in high school and the news was broken to me by a teacher. I'm not sure if I thought the guy was messing with me or just refused to believe it because I didn't really take it seriously. But then I found out it was really true after school and it really hit me hard. Growing up listening to Harry and Whitey, they become members of your family for half the year. No matter how good or bad the Phillies were, no matter how good or bad things in your life were, they were like a security blanket. You wanted to share in the good times with them and find comfort in them during the bad times. When Whitey died, it was like that blanket was ripped in half. Hearing Harry Kalas on the air the night Whitey died was absolutely heartbreaking, but somehow he went on and we knew that we would have to go on as well. We needed Harry and Harry needed us, something we never stopped reminding each other of up until Harry passed on a dozen years later. When Harry died in 2009, the other half of that security blanket was gone forever, but those of us who were fortunate enough to have spent our springs and summers with Harry and Whitey had a lifetime of memories to cherish.

That's my story on the 1997 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Journey to Citizens Bank Park South , also known as Nationals Park

I decided recently to travel -- whenever possible -- to see my favorite baseball team play.  As luck would have it, the Phillies faced the Nats on Memorial Day.  Washington, DC is a reasonable drive from the Delaware Valley and let’s face it -- the Nats have such a weak following that attending a game down there is really like attending a Phillies game at a “satellite” stadium. 

And I will admit -- I was pretty excited to finally be at a game where Chase Utley was in the line-up.  And to make the holiday even better, it was also a Halladay. 

After picking up a friend and her 10 year old daughter from their hotel where they had stayed for a weekend of site-seeing, we ventured to Nationals Park.  Located in the Navy Yard region of the city, Nationals Park is surrounded by newly-developed, high-priced condominiums.  There’s not much else going on around there.  After parking ($15 for a lot four blocks from the stadium), we entered the park.  We met up with the rest of our group, including a firefighter from Alexandria, who had been kind enough to secure our tickets weeks prior to the game. 

We walked around and watched Halladay stretch by the visiting team’s bullpen.  We observed Rich Dubee sit and watch Halladay stretch.  We had our picture taken with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. 

We reached our seats and the first question the 10 year old asked was, “Is there a Chickie’s and Pete’s here?”  What can I say?  That’s my girl!  I taught her everything I know about going to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park.  Is it wrong to admit that I’m looking forward to the day I can have an adult beverage with her at the bar in C&P?

While there is no C&P at Citizens Bank Park South, there is a Hard Times Café, which I was introduced to last year while on a trip to western Maryland.  They have four types of chili that they serve a variety of ways.  My favorite is the Terlingua chili over tater tots.  But I digress. 

Our seats were a whopping $10 each in section 228, which is probably equal to being in the 300 level at CBP (and cheaper than standing room tickets at CBP). 

The game started a little slow and the Phillies were behind in the score, but eventually caught up and passed the Nationals.  Then the Nationals tied and got ahead.  Then we tied and passed them again.  Halladay started; Contreras and Bastardo visited; Madson sealed the deal.  Wilson Valdez took over second base late in the game. 

I will give that loser team credit for two things:  they assembled a beautiful park and paid awesome tribute to our military.  On other levels, they failed.  How does a ballpark run out of ice?  Or bottled water?   It was 95 flippin’ degrees, for crying outloud.  I’m sure the Nats concessions will find some way to blame their inadequacies on the Phillies and the fact that the Phillies following nearly sold out the stadium. 

It was great to see the team win and it seemed to shut up the Nationals fans who really enjoyed immensely when their team was ahead.  And no, I’m not going to skim over Jayson Werth.  He was there, of course, and performed poorly.  His entrance song is … get this … “November Rain” by Guns N Roses.  *scratching head*  Really?  He was booed loudly by the crowd (including me and the 10 year old).  Some silly Nats fan said something like “why are you booing him?  He got your team a World Series ring.”  My response?  “He was part of a collective effort.  And then he let greed takeover.  You won’t be attending any postseason games in this ballpark.”  Oh yea, and Matt Stairs was there, too.  

Sidenote to the baseball gods:  please, please, please have my back and not let the Nationals go to postseason. Ever.

Special shoutout:  to the firefighter who scored us seats in the shade.  He might be used to scorching temperatures, but this Jersey girl is not.