Friday, March 31, 2006

What Does 2006 Hold For the Phillies?

The Good
Overall their lineup should produce plenty of pop. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, and Jimmy Rollins provide six quality hitters on an every day basis.

The Bad
Third base is a major problem for the team if David Bell is “healthy”. No Phillies fan should have any confidence that Bell will produce much more than ends of rallies at the plate. His defense is fine, but replaceable.

Also, Charlie Manuel still manages the team. Somehow, he didn’t get traded to the White Sox with Jim Thome.

The Unknown
Can the pitching staff do their part? Jon Leiber and Randy Myers have shown their worth, but they only make up 40 percent of the rotation. Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson most definitely have the stuff, but they are unproven. And what about the bullpen? Tom Gordon is a significant step back from Billy Wagner. Can Arthur Rhodes be consistent?

The Three Things That Must Happen For The Team To Be Successful
1. Ryan Howard must be a force in the middle of the lineup.
2. Bobby Abreu must have a more consistent season at the plate from April through September.
3. Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson must produce many quality starts. This is the biggest question of all. Neither has shown at the big league level they are ready to be quality starters. If these guys falter, things could get real ugly.

The Prediction
Third place. Until Atlanta gets knocked off, they must be considered the division favorites. Also, one of these years, the Mets’ off-season moves are going to put them in the mix. Billy Wagner is a proven closer that will be 1000 times more reliable than Braden Looper ever was. The Marlins went through yet another fire sale. The Nationals should also struggle.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What Happens When the Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object?

What happens when the unstoppable force collides with the immovable object?

It has always been a philosophical question. It is a question to which there is no real-world answer.

Until now.

While Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats probably weren’t aware of just how immovable the object really was as they entered this season, they found out on Sunday just how tough it is to represent the city of Philadelphia and reach the summit.

It is true in just about every sport we know and accept. Look at the Eagles. The 21st century has been good to the franchise (well, Terrell Owens and his crap aside). But, did we win a Super Bowl? No. We came close. And we only came close after years of finishing tantalizingly close to the big game. Remember Buddy Ryan? Yeah, those teams were good, too. But no big prize.

Baseball? For five years, we have been hoping to just make the playoffs. In four of the last five season, we were in the hunt until the end or near the end of the season. But no invitation to the playoffs.

Hockey? I don’t think I can count how many times over the past 30 years the Flyers were supposed to be the team to bring home the Stanley Cup. In that time, we made the Stanley Cup finals 7 times. But no Stanley Cup.

Basketball? Only one Finals appearance since the last Philadelphia championship. We even won the first game in that series against the Lakers. We lost in five. No NBA championship.

College basketball? Well, since Villanova won the whole thing in 1985, the city has had four teams make it to the round of 8. One was the 1988 Villanova team, which was as surprising as the success in 1985. But the others… Temple entered the 1988 tournament as a number one seed. St. Joseph’s did the same with Jameer Nelson just a couple of years ago. The Wildcats did it this year. Each time, these number one seeds were unable to make it to College Basketball Mecca- the Final Four. Each time, these teams just one victory shy of the big show.

Heck, we can even throw horse racing into the mix. Smarty Jones came within a few feet of winning the Triple Crown, only to see a lead slip away as they came down the stretch.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the immovable object. The Philadelphia Curse. Yep, I said it. Forget Boston. How many championships have they won? We have the curse. And the curse won’t move- very often. It takes some strange circumstances to make the curse yield.

There wasn’t much expected of the 1980 Phillies. Many predicted them to finish 4th in the 6-team National League East. But things just went really, really well. The Curse had to relent. Things weren’t quite as charmed for the 1983 and 1993 teams. The Sixers had the same kind of mojo in 1983. Ditto the 1985 Wildcats.

The immovable object has a firm plant on this city.

This year’s Villanova squad looked like the unstoppable force. The problems these guys had overcome in the past four years to be as good as they were this year… well… c’mon! They must have been destined to win the whole thing this year. From the phone card incident to the airplane back from Providence in which they thought they might land in the Atlantic Ocean to the devastating injuries to their two dominant big men (Jason Frazier and Curtis Sumpter), it would have been easy for this team to pack it in. Instead, they proceed to dominate a great many opponents this year. They were ranked in the top ten all season. They rightfully earned a number one seed in the tournament.

They looked like the unstoppable force. But that’s not how things work around the City of Brotherly Love. They ran into the immovable object.

And the immovable object won. Again. And we wait. Again.

My compliments to the entire Villanova program for a job well done this season. You did the city proud. You did the city as proud as any team is allowed.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate - Part 5

Obviously, it is no easy task to decide who is the best Philly athlete I’ve ever seen play. Except for Rocky (sorry, Mike), all of the athletes so far selected have crossed my mind, as have a few others: Reggie White, Bernard Hopkins, Ron Hextall. One reader mentions Wilt Chamberlain. Clearly, Wilt is the most naturally gifted athlete ever to come out of Philly, but for the purposes of this debate, he came too early – I never saw him play. Another reader mentions Brian Dawkins – a great call, which made my decision even harder. But in the end, everyone who enters this debate designs their own qualifications for the best Philly athlete, and while I think it’s cute how everybody so far has picked an athlete who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, I’ve chosen a winner. My selection is a man who was utterly focused on winning and didn’t care if he looked good doing it, didn’t care if anybody liked him for it, didn’t care how he’d be remembered. My pick is Steven Norman Carlton.

The stats are there: a 3.22 ERA over 24 seasons, 4,136 strikeouts, and 329 wins. The consistency is there: no less than six times he won 20 games or more, 8 times he struck out more than 200 batters in a season (and once more than 300), and 16 times he pitched more than 10 complete games in a season (and in one season he pitched 30 of them). The accolades are there: 4 times he took home the Cy Young Award, 10 times he represented the Phils in the All-Star Game, once he was granted a Gold Glove, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. And, of course, the championship is there. In 1980, the only season in the history of Major League Baseball that ended with the Phils as World Series Champs, Lefty went 24 and 9, struck out 286 batters, and held down an ERA of 2.34. More than that, in the 1980 postseason, Lefty went 3 and 0, putting the nails in the coffins of both the Astros and the Royals.

And might I also mention that over the course of his career he cranked out 13 home runs and 140 RBI and once batted .291?

But the clincher for Lefty is that he excelled at the hardest position in sports – and, I don’t mind saying, a position at which Philadelphia is often sadly lacking. He didn’t care if he was a fan favorite, didn’t care how many Carlton jerseys they sold at the Vet, didn’t care if people were mimicking his style or talking about his accomplishments. All he cared about was winning, and he did it often and with authority.

Oh, OK. You want a little charisma? You want to know that he had a little fire in his gut? Fine. Steve Carlton remains the only man I have ever seen swing at a pitch-out. I’m unable to remember what bizarre circumstances once led to his being intentionally walked, but it happened, and Lefty was so furious that he actually stepped across the plate and took a chop at it. How can you not like that?

Plus, he was a lifeguard. Bet you didn't know that.

Sir Charles was a fun guy to watch and listen to, Schmidty remains the best third-basemen of all time, Rocky ended Communism by punching out a roid-stuffed Russian, and Dr. J ushered in the most exciting era in the history of the NBA. But Steve Carlton was the best Philly athlete of my lifetime.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate - Part 4

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the debate.

Erving & Bird
The Doctor Is In; Circa 1984, opening a can of whoop-ass
By Tim Walton

They called him the Doctor for a reason. He fixed the problem the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA were facing. The team couldn’t win and the league was becoming bland and they both needed a house call. My greatest athlete in Philadelphia History has a big afro and could hang in the air for at least the time it takes me to get off my ass and go get a beer from the ‘fridge. The Doctor did it all.

The numbers are all there; 11 All Star appearances, an MVP in ’81, NBA first team 5 times, 3rd all time in scoring (combining ABA and NBA), but the most telling statistic for me was the winning. In the 5 years before Dr. J got to Philadelphia the Sixers won 9, 25, 30, 34, and 46 games respectively. In his 11 years the team never won below 50 games other than his final season as he made his farewell to the NBA (they still won 45 games that year). And lest we forget our last championship parade was in 1983 as he led us to the NBA title. So, the man was a winner and as far as I am concerned that is the only way one can achieve greatness in athletics.

If winning is not good enough for you than think about the greatest play in Philadelphia sports history, the most graceful, the most athletic, and you will see Dr. J swooping underneath the backboard for an improbable basket. That is what the man brought to the game. As much as people credit Bird and Magic with saving the game, it was the Doctor who came first. He brought the above-the-rim style to a league stuck to the hardwood. Would there be a Michael Jordan without a Dr. J? He had a class and a style that transcended sports.

He was not all offense, though. He leads the 76ers in career blocks (blocked shots became an official NBA statistic in the 1973-74 season) and is second to teammate Mo Cheeks in career steals. Dunking from the foul line was his legacy but the history books will not forget his defense. He played the game hard on both sides of the court.

There is one particular thing that stands out in my memory that makes the Doctor special. November 9, 1984, the day Julius Erving punched Larry Bird in the head. He became not just a great athlete but also a great person. He had been such a good citizen and ambassador for the game of basketball but on that day in November of 1984 he showed his fire. And beat the hell out of that boy from French Lick.

So, if I were to say that this man bring the whole package of greatness it would not be a stretch. The ROUND Mound of Rebound is no name for greatness and Michael Jack doesn’t offer much either but The Doctor sure has a nice ring. He had the personality of Charles without the big ass and big head and the greatness of Schmitty without being hated by his own city. As for Rocky, well, if a 5’6” Italian stallion stepped into a ring with Julius Erving he would beat his ass just like he whipped Bird.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate - Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the debate.

The greatest athlete in Philadelphia history was a hard one for me to iron out. Sure I thought about obvious choices like Mike Schmidt, Charles Barkley, Joe Frazier, Bobby Clarke and Dr. J, but none of them seemed to stand out above the other.

Then I started to think out loud, “what if I built a brand new stadium in town, and opened it live on national television? Who would be the one athlete above all that symbolizes the spirit of athleticism in Philadelphia?”

Well, someone did just that, and they settled on the same man I did, Rocky Balboa. Though the “Italian Stallion” is purely a work of (Oscar-winning) fiction, when the Linc was introduced to the world on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” it was Rocky who kicked off the festivities. In fact, it was so important to have Sylvester Stallone playing his signature role that they used him despite him being in production for a show on another network (NBC’s “The Contender”).

Released in 1977, “Rocky” recently spawned its forthcoming fifth sequel titled, “Rocky Balboa.” The original film won three Academy Awards, including best picture, and was nominated for seven more Oscars.

I lived for few years in Los Angeles, and the first athlete people there associate with the city is Rocky. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I was able to learn about all of the great players who’ve donned the uniforms of my favorite teams. But out west, the Philly squads don’t exactly turn heads (a championship draught can do that).

When friends visit from out of town, one of the first things they all seem to ask is where the art museum is. Not that the art inside isn’t outstanding, but their reason for going is to run up the steps made famous by Balboa. I'd be willing to bet that no other act by a Philadelphia sports star is as imitated as that scene.

When a friend of mine, a Cowboys fan, lost a bet to me a couple of years ago, his payment to me was dinner and a photo of him wearing Eagles garb while standing next to the Rocky statue at the Spectrum. Rocky is so important to Philly's sports psyche that he has a statue outside of one of our sporting venues.

So as the debate continues, I ask the questions: What Philadelphia athlete has five movies completed, a sixth on the way, and a video game? What star was tapped to open the Linc live on national television? What local sports figure is emulated more than any other by people from all over America? The answer: Rocky Balboa.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate- Part 2

Read Part I of the debate here.

While it is arguable that Charles Barkley is the best player to don a 76ers uniform over the past thirty years, the player to call Philadelphia his home over that time is former Phillies thirdbaseman Michael Jack Schmidt. The reasons for this are as follows.

1. Schmidt is the best at his position ever.

Schmitty is widely considered the best thirdbaseman in the history of baseball. More than any other sport, baseball compares its athletes to those of other eras. None to play the hot corner before and none since has rivaled Schmidt’s combination of top-notch defense with career numbers at the plate that rival the all-time greats. Defensively, he won 10 gold gloves. Offensively, he hit 548 homeruns (currently 11th all time), drove in 1595 (currently 26th all time), and is 15th all time in walks. He led the National League 6 different years in homeruns. On top of that, he won 3 MVP awards and was named to the All-Century team in 1999 as the thirdbaseman.

2. He was fun to watch.

Like Barkley, he was fun to watch. Whether it be one of his game-changing homeruns or an all-in-one motion to field a bunt barehanded and gun down someone at first, Schmitty made the game interesting. If you were at a game when he came to bat, you know that the crowd’s electricity level instantly rose.

3. He knew how to have some fun.

While he wasn’t on the same level as Barkley, Schmidt knew how to have some fun every once in a while. Don’t you remember the wig incident?

4. He won a championship.

While an athlete shouldn’t necessarily be disqualified from this debate if he hasn’t won a championship (a good thing, too. That wouldn’t leave us with too many people from whom to choose), it is most definitely a plus to have done so. Schmidt was one of the driving forces behind the Phillies’ one and only World Series victory. In fact, Schmidt was the MVP of the 1980 World Series. Additionally, the Phillies won their division six times during Schmidt’s 18 year career. Can you think of another time in Phillies history when this has occurred? Neither can I. Thus, Schmidt was a leader on some of the best teams the franchise has ever had to offer.
All in all, the choice is clear. In the past 30 years, Mike Schmidt is the best Philadelphia athlete.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate - Part I

Editor's Note: The following debate is a five-part series in which every member of The BSJ will make an argument for the greatest athlete in Philadelphia Sports history. Since everyone writing is 30 years-old or younger the list will be limited to only those athletes that we actually saw play. Let the debate begin!

The Good Old Days With Philly's Finest

The greatest athlete in Philadelphia sports that I've ever seen is one Sir Charles Barkley. Mind you, Barkley was not an easy decision to reach on this topic-I seriously considered Pete Rose, Allen Iverson and even Randall Cunningham among other more obvious options like Mike Schmidt or Julius Erving.

I settled on Barkley for several reasons: of the major team sports basketball requires the most "athleticism" to play at the game's highest level; Barkley redefined what people thought of as a power forward; his lasting reputation as one of the 50 greatest players in his sport; and his personality which embodied the spirit of Philadelphia.

Unfortunately Barkley only spent eight of his sixteen NBA seasons in the great city of Philadelphia and many will contend that because he didn't deliver a championship over that period that he shouldn't be eligible for this debate. Winning a championship is important, but (lest you forget) Barkley's tenure in Philadelphia was tainted by the ownership of Harold Katz, whose competitiveness was a mere fraction of Barkley's. Barkley did, however, lead the team to several playoff berths and his first year in Phoenix (following the infamous trade for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang) he led the Suns to the Finals and won the league MVP. Barkley may not have an NBA Championship on his resume, but he does have two Olympic Gold Medals, won in 1992 and 1996 with the USA Men's Basketball team. You want accolades? Barkley's got those too: 11-time All Star; All NBA First-team 1988-1991, 1993; NBA MVP 1993.

Forget all of that, though. Barkley is the greatest because he was one of the most electrifying players to watch. He was listed at 6'6'', but was really about 6'4" and played the game with a tenacity that, perhaps, is still unmatched in the game. Despite being well undersized for his position Barkley's tenacious play translated into dominating the paint and the backboard. He managed to lead the league in rebounding in 1987 with 14.6 rebounds per game. He also led the league in offensive rebounds for three straight years, 1987-1989. Furthermore, Barkley was a prolific scorer. His career high for points per game was in 1988, at 28.3. That's an exact tie for Julius Erving's NBA career high. All of that amounted to him being named one of the 50 Greatest Players of all-time in the NBA.

In addition to his prowess on the court, "the round mound of rebound" was an entertaining individual. Barkley had the charisma and sense of humor that many other great Philly athletes, like Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Randall Cunningham, Allen Iverson, lack(ed). Barkley was an unpredictable guy who delivered many an amusing sound-bite and even the occasional punch for for an opposing player that might've rubbed him the wrong way. Remember Barkley exchanging fisticuffs with Bill Laimbeer? That was vintage Charles Barkley, as was his Nike commercial in which he warned everyone,"I am not a role model."

It was that swagger that best defines Barkley as the quintessential Philadelphia athlete. Philadelphia sports fans aren't role models either and Barkley embodied that in his play and his attitude . If ever there was a perfect fit, it was Charles Barkley playing basketball in Philadelphia. Pure synergy. Inch for inch (okay, not pound for pound) Barkley delivered more points, more rebounds and more thrills than a player his size should have.

Whether it was Barkley throwing down one of his trademark thunder dunks or mouthing off to the officials or getting in a bar fight off the court, he is the single most important athlete over the last 25-30 years in Philadelphia. That shame is that the Sixers let him get away.