Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hell of a Week

This may very well be my last post on Red Pinstripe Explosion. While I don't doubt my abilities as a writer in general, I have come to the realization that most of my musings on the Philadelphia Phillies were little more than glorified summaries of what fans already knew. I'll resign myself to the experts who are much more eloquent and dedicated in their knowledge of Major League Baseball. Oddly enough, the following has nothing to do with the big leagues.

As most of you know, I am leaving the sports writing world behind and entering the non-profit field, but my job at the Gettysburg Times saw fit to reward me with a nice sendoff; a reminder of what made this position I held for three-and-a-half years so special.

The magical high school baseball season of 2010 notwithstanding, June is the time of the year when things really slow down at the office. Our coverage mainly consists of American Legion and South Penn League baseball games (for those who don't know, the latter is a local nine-team, men's league).

I recently experienced a unique stretch consisting of four Legion and two South Penn contests over an eight-day period, and they reopened my eyes to the wonderful randomness of baseball. In nearly every game, I saw something I had never before witnessed, and I stumbled upon a few cool story lines. I now happily share them with you:

June 13 & 15 - Hanover's Legion team laughed in the face of conventional offense in back-to-back wins over Bermudian and Dallastown. In the two games combined, Hanover scored 18 runs and a whopping 10 of them were scored on either wild pitches, passed balls or sacrifice flies. Numerous walks and stolen bases came into play here as well. In the 14-3 win over Bermudian, Hanover had just seven hits, four of which came in one inning. The team took an early 8-0 lead on the strength of just two hits, both from the No. 9 hole guy. I've never been so confused looking at my own scorebook.

June 14 - The Cashtown Pirates beat the Biglerville Black Sox 1-0 in an unlikely South Penn pitchers' duel. Cashtown starter Paul Price was still getting used to longer outings again after spending his college freshman season as a freqently-used reliever. The deeper he went into this game, however, the better he looked. After giving up two hits in the first inning, he held the Sox hitless the rest of the way, striking out 11 (6 from the 5th inning on) and walking just one. Even more impressive, however, was the gutsy performance by Biglerville pitcher Kyle Knouse, who hadn't ascended a mound in nearly a year, and did so at the last minute because no other pitchers were available. He spent most of the outing pitching out of the stretch through pain in his throwing arm, but he allowed only one run to score on an RBI single in the fourth inning. His defense helped him out with some great plays, including the lovely, but seldom seen 5-2-3 double play. One of those games where you're sorry one of the teams has to lose.

June 18 - Unless you're the 2010 Bermudian Springs Eagles (they made an art out of crushing first-pitch fastballs), if you don't work the count, you're going to lose. New Oxford's Legion team, mostly made up of sophomore JV players due to Senior Week, learned this painful lesson through the first six innings of its game against Bermudian. The players were facing a 3-1 deficit going into the seventh and final inning. They hadn't drawn their first walk until the sixth and had worked just one three-ball count in the previous five innings. It was now up to the No. 8 and 9 hitters to laugh in the face of their team's nearly-evaporated win expectancy. Low and behold, they each got on with a base on balls. Bill James had finally coaxed the players into removing the gun barrel from their collective temple. However, they then shot sabermetrics in the foot with a bunt attempt that got the lead runner thrown out at third. Lucky for them, it was only the first out. During the following at-bat, Bermudian's reliever threw THREE STRAIGHT wild pitches that allowed the tying runs to score. The batter then tripled to deep right and trotted home with what proved to be the winning run on a throwing error. Baseball, don't ever institute a timer! As an interesting side note, this game was the first time I had seen the losing pitcher on the mound since he pitched that very same 2010 Bermudian team into the state finals.

June 20 - We're all taught from a very young age that sportsmanship and dignity are essential components to a successful team. Sure, heated moments can pop up, but when all is done, you shake hands and congratulate the other team on a game well played. In this particular Legion game, however, one player decided to use his hands to express himself in quite a different way. I can say with both certainty and relief that I will never see another thing like this on a baseball diamond. It was the top of the fifth inning and Glen Rock was pounding Hanover 11-1 and threatening for more with the bases loaded and two outs. The next batter up hit a grounder to the third baseman. After he fielded it, he pivoted toward home for what should have been an inning-ending forceout, but instead he hit the baserunner in the back. It was such a bizarre event that I didn't even realize it was intentional. The home plate umpire did and tossed the aggressor. His ejection forced a premature end to this blowout because Hanover had no substitutions left. The players on both sides had to shake hands with a mix of resentment and incompletion. Maybe I'm crazy, but there are more mature ways of handling conflict than throwing a baseball at someone while his back is turned. Pure Bush League, man. I must admit as journalist, though, it turned a nothing story into something.

June 21 - Even if it is more common at this level, a no-hitter is a remarkable achievement and such a thrill to watch. In this South Penn contest, New Oxford Twins pitcher Charlie Werner was in total control from start to finish, and his secret was really no secret at all: keep the ball down. He had Littlestown's hitters biting at his fastball all evening. He struck out just three batters, while 14 of hits 21 outs came on the ground. His middle infielders showed impressive range and accuracy, while his left fielder made the play of the night, chasing down a blooper in shallow left that was fading toward the line for the first out of the sixth inning. It was the first no-hitter of Werner's life and even more amazing, he pitched with a cold and before this season, he was New Oxford's starting catcher.

This crazy game of baseball always keeps me on my toes, and it's without the doubt the sport I'll miss writing about the most when I leave Gettysburg in a few days for greener pastures. Then again, I will always have this blog to come back to if the urge becomes overwhelming. Thank you so much for reading and I apologize for this post's crazy length. I guess that's what happens when you don't write a true one for several months. I hope you all have found it entertaining and insightful! Until next time.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Manuel, Phillies ready to lift lid on season

The burning anticipation hung like a thick fog over the entire Diamond Club at Citizens Bank Park.

It was just 24 hours until the first pitch of Opening Day for the Philadelphia Phillies, but the team's television broadcasters and manager Charlie Manuel all said the same thing.

"We were ready two weeks ago."

A special event was held at the stadium's exclusive club for all the radio stations that broadcast Phillies games, including Gettysburg's own Fox Sports 1320, of which I was an honorary employee for two hours.

After a filling lunch of Italian hoagies, cheesesteaks and Tastycakes, the group was treated to a Q & A session, first with GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., and then Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. These unique media members were the last who got to grill Amaro and Manuel about all the issues facing the team before the start of the regular season.

Amaro was his usual cryptic self, speaking in generalizations about the state of the team, and he looked quite flustered by the last few questions/comments from the crowd. One suggested that maybe Jimmy Rollins would stop swinging at the first pitch with the wise hitting presence of Jim Thome in the dugout. Amaro quickly snapped back, "You're not upset when Jimmy gets a hit on the first pitch."

Perhaps to distract us from the ongoing negotiations to sign Cole Hamels long-term and the unknown timetables for the return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Amaro went in depth about the disgusting nature of Howard's recent infection around his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.

God knows why the GM would have his hands anywhere near the injured foot of one of his players, but the event's MC, Phillies play-by-play radio broadcaster Scott Franzke, made light of the situation by asking the audience, "Everyone ready for lunch?"

The mood was more relaxed when Dubee and Manuel took the stage, but even Manuel seemed a bit testy about the questions he's also been asked for the past six weeks.

Fans and reporters do have a valid cause for concern, especially considering we've all grown accustomed to the Phillies winning the NL East every year.

If you want to point the finger at what could snap that five-year streak, look no further than the offense. Lack of hitting has been the culprit for most of the Phillies' losses over the past two years, and the absence of more trophies on the shelf next to 2008. The only offensive additions the team made in the offseason were to its bench, so as a hitters' manager, Manuel will continue to field some tough questions as the season gets going.

Howard and Utley will be mere shadows of themselves after they return - I would say May for Utley and July for Howard - and a third of Philly's games will come against Atlanta and the much-improved clubs in Miami and Washington (Manuel's money is still on the Braves as their toughest competition in the division). The Phillies will still make the playoffs, but if they want the high seed a division title brings, Rollins will have to stay healthy the whole year, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will both have to hit above .300 and John Mayberry, Jr. will need to have a breakout year with 25-30 home runs.

Amidst all the negative predictions, Amaro and Manuel were positively gushing about Joe Savery, who was the 12th and final pitcher to be named to the Phillies' Opening Day roster. The team's first-round draft pick in 2007, Savery converted to hitting last year after serious control problems, but he magically rediscovered his hurling talents and made the team after a solid Spring Training (1-1, 3.48 ERA). With Jose Contreras opening the season on the Disabled List, Savery will get to prove himself out of the Phillies bullpen.

Pitching is the area that the Phightins' aren't worried about, so much so that color announcer Gary "Sarge" Matthews claimed during a Spring Training broadcast that he could take over for Dubee. His fellow broadcasters let the audience know that they will never let him live that one down.

With fiery closer Jonathan Papelbon now putting the finishing touches on the masterpieces of the three aces, we can excuse Sarge's impertinence. We've gotten used to it over the past five years.

I was selected to ask Manuel one final question before he and the rest of the team left for Pittsburgh, and I decided to go easy on him. I wanted to know which pitcher gets the most upset at him when he walks to the mound to take them out.

"I'd say Halladay, (Cliff) Lee and Vance Worley," he replied.

Phillies radio color man and former pitcher Larry Andersen immediately followed by asking Manuel in jest if he ever got scared taking Halladay - who will start Game 1 against the Pirates this afternoon - out of a game in the ninth inning.

Charlie gave the slightest of smiles and said, "If I ever got scared, I'd turn around, go into my office, take off my uniform and go home. You can't ever be scared to do that."

That answer reminded us all why Manuel is the winningest manager in Phillies history, and with him at the helm, there's no reason to look upon the 2012 season with anything but excitement.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

PSWA dinner reveals inspiring sports heroes

note: This is another column of mine that ran in the Gettysburg Times about my experience at the PSWA dinner.

My body suddenly froze as I locked eyes on a face that looked as familiar as when the body attached to it donned a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.

His jet-black hair was well kept - likely aided by some gelling agent - with its usual part down the left side. Ruben Amaro, Jr. looked directly through my gaze without expression, the perfect poker face for any general manager.

As Amaro hung a right into the socializing area outside Ballroom C, my eyes grew wider as he was followed by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and right fielder Hunter Pence. At that moment, I didn't know which items to shove in their faces, a baseball and pen, or my digital recorder.

Neither seemed appropriate, however. These men were baseball royalty, but I was surprised how much they appeared like regular guys without any mental reminders.

I snapped myself out of the trance and gave Charlie Manuel a pat on the back and a simple greeting; as if he was a friend I had just bumped into at a party. To my relief, he briefly spun his head around and returned the greeting with a smile. Good old Uncle Cholly.

There is sometimes a fine line between reporter and fan, and I frequently danced on both sides of it during the 108th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner Monday night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, N.J. I gabbed with fellow sports writers while snagging a few John Hancocks from the head table.

The event was held to recognize Philadelphia-area athletes in all sports with achievement awards. Manuel received a special achievement honor for becoming the winningest manager in Phillies history this past season. Pence won the 2012 Good Guy Award for his immediate affinity with the team and fans when he was traded from the Houston Astros last July (further bolstered by his recent one-year, $10.4 million contract that avoided arbitration).

When Manuel began his acceptance speech, the only words I heard clearly through his West Virginia drawl was "nudist colony," which prompted the biggest laugh of the evening from the audience. His full opening line was, "I feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony," but he had to wait a good 15 seconds for the laughter to die down before he awkwardly delivered the punch line: "I don't know where to start."

Often the butt of a joke due to his 'not-so-good' diction, Manuel came across to the crowd the same way he did with me earlier, as a humble man who appreciated the job he was given as the Phillies' skipper.

As for Pence, the way he worked the crowd, you might have thought he actually grew up in Philadelphia (his speech revealed but a hint of Texas twang). His opening referred back to the acceptance speech given by Philadelphia University men's basketball coach Herb Magee, who playfully lamented that his granddaughters were more excited about getting their picture taken with the dashing Pence than seeing him receive the Living Legend Award.

In response, Pence quipped, "I just won the Good Guy Award so don't parade your granddaughters around me, please."

The Philly outfielder was also one of several honorees to mention the rousing speech given by Temple University head football coach Steve Addazio, whose rant of inspiration made every attendee in the ballroom feel like one of his players in the locker room on game day. When he was finished, no one questioned how the Owls won their first bowl game since 1979.

"Is my heart still pounding," Pence asked as he looked in Addazio's direction. "I don't know if you're still here or not, but I need you to speak to me before every game."

My recorder captured all of this humorous dialogue, but I shot an arrow through my professional credibility by yelling out Pence's name right before he approached the podium. Truth be told, he was the main reason I wanted to attend the dinner. From the moment he put on those red pinstripes, he has reminded us all of what a baseball player used to be before the stat crazes and steroids - pulling up those socks to his knees, choking up on the bat like the Mickey Morandini of old and slapping the lumber at the ball with odd precision.

My reporter sensibilities came back into focus when the PSWA honored the memories of boxer Joe Frazier and Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno.

As the chilling sounds of boxing's 10-bell salute filled the silence in the room, emotion overtook the bell's ringer, Frazier's daughter Jacqui Frazier-Lyde - a boxer in her own right, as well as a Municipal Court Judge. But like her father did so many times in his career, she finished what she started.

Paterno was honored with poignant words from former Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro, who played in just five games as a freshman before a spinal injury ended his career. After surgery, he was given only a three percent chance to walk again, but he defied the odds during an eight-month stay at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. A frequent visitor kept his spirits high.

"Every week Coach Paterno came to visit me," he said. "It was a three-hour drive. He didn't have to do that. He was one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people I ever met. My career was over and he asked me every day what I wanted to do with my life. He got me internships and sent letters of recommendation. He wanted me to be successful after football."

A shining example of Paterno's Grand Experiment, Taliaferro is now a lawyer in Cherry Hill and was recently elected to the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The Philly area was the site of another miracle recognized by the PSWA in its final award presentation. The association chose Anthony Robles as its 2012 Most Courageous Athlete. The Arizona State wrestler captured the NCAA Division I title at 125 pounds at the Wells Fargo Center last March, despite being born without a right leg.

"I never thought of it as a handicap," said Robles, who has become a motivational speaker since graduating and is working on a book about his life.

As Robles spoke, the real magic of this event washed over me. The association helped my realization by turning off all the lights except the one on the podium, making Pence, Manuel and Amaro disappear. Stories like Robles and Taliaferro are at the core of what it means to be a sports writer; teaching readers who are living in an increasingly cynical world about overcoming any obstacle to achieve success.

Though I returned to being a fan by the end of the dinner, Robles and Taliaferro were now the athletic giants who left me frozen in awe as they walked by.