11th and Washington

11th and Washington: September 2004

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Au revoir, Montreal

I watched as the ball fell into Mike Mordecai's glove just behind third base on the carpet of le Stade Olympique. Mordecai, himself a former Expo, tentatively jogged to the dugout, wondering if there should be more. It was, after all, the final out of the final play for baseball in Montreal. There was some history to it.

Before he reached the dugout, a coach came out and took the ball from him, looked over toward the Expos dugout on the first-base side, and tossed a one-hopper to Montreal manager Frank Robinson, who acknowledged the gesture with his index finger in the air and a nod of his head.

With that, baseball in Montreal was over.

The listed attendance was 31,395. Most of the closer shots, particularly from the outfield and foul line cameras, showed packed stands. But after the game, the view from behind the plate showed an empty upper deck down the lines and in the outfield. In the end, about 15,000 fans could have walked up to the window minutes before the first pitch and gotten a ticket to the last baseball game in Montreal.

I nearly did that. Not for last night's finale, but for Tuesday's penultimate game. Late Monday night, the Washington news began to leak out, and I knew I had Tuesday off. It was nearly midnight, but I had to check. I quickly ruled out flights ($500) and the train schedule didn't fit mine (I would have had to take an overnight trip back to be in New York Wednesday morning in order to get to work by 10 or 11). Greyhound was perfect: Just a little more than $100, roundtrip, I could be in Montreal after a nine-hour bus ride (shorter than the train, actually) and get on an 11:30 bus home that would allow me to be at work in time. But the bus north was leaving Port Authority at 8:30 or 9 a.m., and it was already midnight and I just didn't have the energy to pull it off. It also occurred to me that I was doing this solely for the historical aspect of it and that Olympic Stadium is a dump. I was more upset at not getting to visit the truly historical original Comiskey Park before its demolition than I am about missing out on baseball in Montreal. As I sat around the house on Tuesday while the leftover rain and wind from Hurricane Jeanne darkened the skies and soaked the ground, I was glad I wasn't spending the day on a bus cruising up through New York State to Quebec.

Tomorrow, the Expos begin a three-game series at Shea to close out their tenure as the Montreal Expos. They'll play their final game in the same stadium in which they played their first in 1969. I haven't yet decided if I'm going to make it out to Sunday's finale. It will be a gameday decision.

I think baseball in Washington is a good idea. I don't think Bud Selig and MLB went about it the right way -- making Orioles owner Peter Angelos happy shouldn't have been their first priority -- but the important thing is that they got it done. And in my opinion, I think the Texas Rangers should continue to hold onto the Washington Senators name. There's no need to go back there. That was last century, the team of Walter Johnson and, for a few years at least, Harmon Killebrew (in its first incarnation). That was the American League team. Of the possibilities, I think my favorite would be the Washington Grays, a permanent homage to the Negro Leagues and its teams and players. It would do as much, if not more, to honor them and Jackie Robinson than retiring every team's No. 42.

As we enter this final weekend of the season, I've got a fantasy team in a money league with a secure hold on second place (for the second straight year, I'll win back triple my entry fee) with an outside shot at the title if I can get good starts from my remaining pitchers (and those I can pick up off the wire and remain under the innings limit) and my hitters get hot and pick me up the points available in runs, home runs and the four-way tie I could cause with a one-point boost in batting average. It's looking grim. In a public league, I'm currently tied for first and I'm dying to make it into a winner's league next year. In a third league -- points-based scoring -- I secured first place two months ago.

Then there are the real pennant races. The Dodgers can wrap up the division with a win tonight and a Giants' loss in San Diego. If they don't, they'll host San Francisco for the final three games of the season, needing to win at least one, at most two games. The Giants will still have a shot at the wild card, currently the Astros' to lose with a 1/2-game lead over both San Fran and the Cubs (pending the outcome of Chicago's game in progress against Cincinnati). Then there's the AL West, which has the Angels up on the Athletics by one game entering this afternoon's games. Tomorrow, the Angels will be in Oakland for a final-weekend showdown. So much drama!

What a great game.

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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Citizens Bank Park

For my 93rd major league ballgame, I visited my 18th major league ballpark. Sunday afternoon, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, Phillies vs. Expos.

It was indeed a gorgeous day for a ballgame. Sunny, an impossible blue sky, about 70 degrees with a light breeze. I entered the park through the right-field gate, right near the chaos that is Bull's BBQ -- Greg Luzinski's stand -- and the surrounding picnic tables and benches. To my right was Ashburn Alley, a stretch of local and unique food stands, attractions for the kids and a jersey customization shop. I walked to the right down the Alley looking for my lunch options. It was about 12:30, an hour before the first pitch, and already the lines for the cheesesteak stand were long.

I kept walking.

On the left were the tiered bullpens, then right field. Fans snaked their way through the Phillies Hall of Fame above the bullpens and hung out along the railing, eating their recently purchased food and awaiting the pitchers' warmups. Once I passed center field and turned the corner to left, I found myself beneath the gigantic scoreboard (with Harry K's restaurant embedded in it) and looking out through the gates at the desolate sand pit that was once the site of Veterans Stadium. As antiseptic and plain as that stadium was, it seemed to have more character in its surrounding areas than this scene did. But that assessment is not fair, since that site is now a construction zone as they continue to clear it. I'm sure that once that work is complete, the landscaping will return.

I was also walking in the shade of the scoreboard and, moments later, beneath the right-field stands. Here, the wind became cold, and I was glad, despite the warm sunshine and near-70-degree weather, that I wore jeans. I wondered if I should've put on that long-sleeved shirt beneath my Lakewood BlueClaws jersey. I bought a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke and walked over to the standing-room ledges at the back of each section along the concourse to watch the final pregame preparations while I ate. Groundskeepers watered the infield and players from both teams stretched and sprinted along the foul lines and in the outfield. When a touching tribute to Tug McGraw and Paul Owens played on the scoreboard, I had to duck to see the screen beneath the overhang and I cursed the TV montiors hanging over the seats that were showing ESPN's football pregame instead of the Tug tribute, set to Jackson Browne's "All Good Things."

Anyway, like Eric Neel, I think the ledges along the concourses are one of the best additions to any newly built ballpark. It allows for pregame strolling and eating, with a good view of the field, before heading up to your seats in the upper deck. Same would apply to in-game needs for sustinence. Overall, though, I wasn't as impressed with the Cit. Or the 'Zen. Or whatever you want to call it (and why is the corporate name of San Diego's new park banned, as the column said at the top, but Philly's isn't?). I think my impressions were tinted by the seat in the upper deck, just beyond the right-field foul pole, that obscured the out-of-town scoreboard from view and left me with a backdrop outside the stadium of the pit where the Vet once stood. Yet, even during my pregame stroll around the concourse, the downtown skyline out beyond center field was far off and distant, making the city seem even more distant that it actually is. Or maybe I'm just too impressed by PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

After eating, I stopped in the main team store even though I didn't really want any Phillies gear. But when the first thing I saw upon walking through the doors was a red t-shirt with "FLOYD 41" on the back, for Gavin Floyd, I had to make an exception. Just three weeks in the majors, one win (to that point) in his career, and already the first Lakewood BlueClaw to make an impact in the majors and a former No. 1 pick had joined the ranks of THOME 25, BURRELL 5, MILLWOOD 34, WAGNER 13 and even BELL 4. I bought the shirt, then a scorecard along the first-base concourse, and then climbed the stairs up to my seat in the sky.

I wore the BlueClaws jersey because my seat was with a group of fans and employees of the Phillies' Class A team from the Jersey Shore. I spent the game in an aisle seat next to octagenarian fan Mildred, who told me she's now known as Mrs. Claws and, during the team's inaugural season, had stitched a quilt commemorating the first campaign. Since I covered the team at the time, I believe she took my picture one day when I chatted with her and her husband on the concourse and incorporated it into the quilt.

Thankfully, we were in the sun. Unforunately, I'd forgotten my sunscreen and returned with two pink forearms, a red neck and a flushed face. Because of the angle of my seat and the location of the sun, the left side of my face and neck were more cooked than the other. Gorgeous. Kevin Millwood was off the DL and making his first start in like two months. He did OK, but lasted only two innings, which suited us just fine. When the Phillies took the field for the top of the third, out from the bullpen strolled Gavin Floyd. We stood and cheered and sections near us must've first wondered if we were friends and family, then probably realized that there was no way that could be the case considering how far we were from the field.

The Phillies went on to win 7-2, and Gavin got the win for his three innings of relief. Mike Lieberthal homered, giving us a chance to see the big Liberty Bell in action, and Billy Wagner closed out the ninth with two strikeouts. I suppose the atmosphere was a little subdued considering the disappointing season the Phillies have had, considering the expectations back in March. Not yet mathmatically eliminated, but for all intents and purposes, they were done, and here they were playing a glorified AAA club in the Expos.

As for the ballpark, it will be a great place to be some October night when they host a playoff game in a year or two, particularly when the Vet site is groomed a bit. I'm sure it's a great place to spend a summer afternoon or evening. But the location can't compete with Pittsburgh's and Ashburn Alley, while a wonderful attraction on its own, is no Eutaw Street in Baltimore -- for one thing, it's not as wide. And -- something else Eric Neel pointed out -- as I was sitting in my seat high above the field, looking down at the new ballpark, I wondered how great it would look if the 42,000 blue seats before me were a bright, brilliant Phillie red. I realize blue is one of the Phillies' official colors, but it's not the first one people think of, and were they red instead, they might look more impressive (and more filled) on TV when those late-season wide shots show a less-than-full ballpark.

But hopefully, I'll be back in the coming years for more Gavin Floyd victories and more BlueClaw alumni appearances in the bigs.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Should he stay or should he go?

I generally don't see the point in firing a manager when his team's just playing out the string to get to the end of the season. I see no reason for the Phillies to go ahead and send Larry Bowa to the curb just to name someone "interim" manager for the rest of the season. I said "generally." If the Phillies were considering bench coach Gary Varsho as their next manager and wanted to give him a four-week trial run from here to the end of the season, that would certainly be worth the hassle.

Chances are Bowa's done in Philly, and I doubt Ed Wade will be turning to someone in the organization as his first choice to take the reins in 2005. Otherwise, he might very well have already changed the locks on the manager's office in Citizens Bank Park. The team will probably wait until the offseason to see who's available -- and which coaches on other teams they can get permission to talk to -- and hire someone just before Christmas. The division was the Phillies' to lose this year, and they sure did it with flair. During Bowa's tenure, Philadelphia has a winning record before the all-star break, but can't crack .500 down the stretch. They have a history of blowing their wad too soon.

But there is one case in which I'd like to see a change made today: the Mets'. Clearly, Art Howe is not the man for New York. (I think the main problem is the Wilpon family and their idiotic decisions over the past four or five years, but they're not about to fire themselves or sell the team.) He's too soft, too quiet, and he's clearly lost control of the team. The losing streak is currently at nine games and the Mets have won once in their last 14 attempts. There's no heart, no pride, no sense of any desire to win from the team as a whole.

It's hard to overlook all that the Wilpons have done to get them to this point since the end of the 2000 season:

• They didn't even give Steve Phillips a chance to sign Alex Rodriguez and had the GM come up with some ridiculously lame excuse that he was asking for too much (a luxury box for his family, a private jet, etc.).

• They wouldn't give the Mariners Aaron Heilman for Lou Pinella. As a Notre Dame grad and a Mets fan, I would love nothing more than to see Heilman have a decent career in New York. So far, he hasn't shown he can stay at the big-league level, and certainly hindsight shows this as a stupid mistake on the Mets' part. But at the time, as much as I wanted to see Aaron make his major-league debut in blue and orange (and I went to Shea last summer for the game, against Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins), I thought it might be worth it to send an unproven minor-league pitcher to Seattle for a sure-thing to manage the club.

• They wouldn't trade Scott Kazmir for Alfonso Soriano. Who knows how seriously the Mets pursued Soriano, but some talks during spring training got far enough for one of the Wilpons -- father/owner Fred, I believe -- to go on the record in the New York Times and say that Kazmir was one of the few untouchable prospects in the Mets' organization (David Wright was another). The Rangers rumors probably were Jose Reyes and Kazmir for Soriano, but even with Soriano's less-than-Yankee-like season in Texas, giving up an injury-prone Reyes with little power and Kazmir for Soriano doesn't look like such a bad move for the Mets now. That they could then decide that Victor Zambrano was worth letting go of Kazmir is unfathomable to me. I could take not getting Soriano for Kazmir had they kept Kazmir. But this? God.

The Wilpons are clearly falling into the abyss that George Steinbrenner dragged the Yankees into in the 80s. During his height as "The Boss," George couldn't resist meddling in the day-to-day operations of the team and guided the Yanks into their worst stretch in their history. When he was suspended, then backed off, the farm system signed, drafted and developed the likes of Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. Then they went out and won four of five World Series and have made it to two more since then.

The Wilpons aren't letting their baseball people do their jobs. They've got pitching coach Rick Peterson advising Jeff Wilpon on trades, they're sending Jim Duquette out there to clean up the mess of the Zambrano trade and injury and they're making bad moves at the wrong time. If the Kris Benson and Zambrano trades were made for the future (figuring they could sign Benson quite easily and knowing they have Zambrano locked up for three more years), that's one thing. But you get the sense that the trades were made also as a fading hope at making a postseason run this year, which is ridiculous. If that's the case, the moves should've been made in early July, when the Mets were in the thick of an NL East race that had the Mets, Braves and Phillies all within two games of one another. But July 30, it was way too late.

Art Howe isn't going to get the team anywhere. These players -- when they're healthy -- might be enough, but clearly the pitching staff lost its magic since having the best ERA in the majors when the Subway Series started at Yankee Stadium in late June. Wilpon criticized the Mets for not continuing to win despite injuries, saying good teams overcome them, but the Mets aren't equipped to overcome injuries to Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui with the likes of Jason Phillips, Gerald Williams, Joe McEwing and Wilson Delgado. Those players are OK as bench players, pinch hitters, late-inning defensive replacements, pinch runners and day-game-after-a-night-game spot starters, but in no way can you send two, three or four of them out there day after day and expect to beat the likes of the Padres, Phillies or Braves.

A report in the New York Daily News said that should Bowa get fired, the Mets would consider him as a bench coach. Good God, no. Not unless that means Howe is gone and Don Baylor is promoted to manager. What could the Mets get out of having Howe as the manager and Bowa as the bench coach (with Baylor either gone to manage some other team, or sticking around as the Mets' hitting coach)? Howe and Bowa on the bench would be a good cop-bad cop routine every night, every inning. And Baylor -- perhaps the best manager of the bunch -- would be doing the least managing.

It's taken me a while to admit this, but the Mets, clearly, are a mess.

There's little hope for the near future in Flushing.

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