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Saturday, February 14, 2009
Three Strikes: Defending champs back at it

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies have been holding spring training camps under the Florida palm trees since 1946. But only once, before Saturday, had they ever opened a camp like this one -- a camp that followed a World Series parade.

I was a visitor to that Phillies camp Saturday, on First Workout of the Spring Day. Here's a taste of what I found:

STRIKE ONE -- CHARLIESBURG ADDRESS DEPT.: At 9:30 a.m. on a gorgeous spring training morning, the manager of the World Series champs launched into a speech he'd been thinking about all winter.

Every spring, there's only one manager in baseball who has to give this speech on the first day of spring training. And this year, it was Charlie Manuel's turn -- to stop pushing the rewind button on his team's psyche and move on over to the fast-forward button.

"If you're thinking about yesterday," the manager of the Phillies told his team, "you're not doing nothing now."

The manager told his troops Saturday that they have "a good chance to repeat." He also said he knows how hard it is. But I wonder if he really does -- if any of them really know.

So let's make sure they do:

• Only one team in the past 15 years has won back-to-back World Series -- the 1998-1999-2000 Yankees, who won three of them in a row. But putting it that way makes it sound much easier than it actually is.

• Let's remember that besides those Yankees, the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays are the only other team to repeat in the past 30 years.

• And let's also remember this: The only National League team to repeat in the past 87 years was the 1975 and 1976 Big Red Machine.

• But let's especially remember this: Since the wild-card era stretched the postseason into the three-tiered adventure it has become, repeating has gotten harder than ever. True, those Yankees did it. But other than the Yankees, just two defending World Series winners since 1995 have even won a postseason game the next October: the 1996 Braves and the 2008 Red Sox.

So it's no wonder Manuel was trying to convince his troops to turn the page Saturday. They sure don't want to dwell on all those other World Series teams' pages -- or their own.

STRIKE TWO -- BEWARE OF GNC DEPT.: The good news Saturday for Cole Hamels was his manager has already named him the Opening Day starter. (That's April 5, on "Sunday Night Baseball," if you'd like to mark your calendar).

But the bad news for Hamels was the manager wasn't the only Phillie to drop his name. Hamels' name also came up when his suspended teammate, J.C. Romero, was waxing on Saturday morning about the lessons to be learned from Romero testing positive for a banned steroid because of a supplement he bought at GNC.

"Cole Hamels -- he was very stunned when this happened," Romero said, "because he and his wife buy stuff from GNC all the time."

Hamels wouldn't be alone, of course. And shopping at GNC wouldn't ordinarily make him suspect of anything other than making sure he takes his vitamins. But under these particular circumstances, it meant Hamels had some questions to answer.

• Hamels openly admitted he uses numerous supplements, saying he's got "a whole freaking cupboard" of "vitamins" he takes. "All you're trying to do," he said, "is just kind of keep your body going. I know this stuff is not going to make us play better. It's just going to make us feel better. That's not going to really affect how I'm going to get a guy out."

• Since Romero's suspension, Hamels said he has become "a lot more cautious. And I know to now save stuff … just in case I get banged for something. That way, I actually have proof [that I wasn't knowingly taking a banned substance]."

• Hamels also said he's now more aware of MLB's substance hotline than he was before Romero's suspension, saying: "I know we've been given the number. I know I've gotten it e-mailed every other week … now, but not before."

• Asked why he wouldn't have known it before, since MLB informed players of the hotline program in spring training in '08, Hamels said: "When they come in, it's for very few minutes, and they don't really go over too much. But I think now, because of the strictness, I think they'll go over that a little bit more."

• Hamels conceded that he and his teammates were given wallet cards by MLB this past year, with the hotline phone number imprinted. But he said: "I think that just got thrown in my locker. But now, I'll be having that thing on me."

He spoke so openly about this topic, he obviously didn't sound like a man who felt as if his supplement use was anything to hide. But massive supplement consumption -- by just about everybody in this sport -- is a topic we've heard very little about.

And he and Romero were both so casual in their lack of recall -- or even interest, for that matter -- in MLB's supplement-education efforts, it makes you wonder:

Was the presentation this past spring really that halfhearted? Or was this a message players didn't get because they didn't particularly want to get it?


• The Phillies would still like to add a left-handed reliever, but the price range being asked by Will Ohman, Dennys Reyes and Joe Beimel remains more than the $1 million or less they'd prefer to spend.

• Before the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a three-year, $54 million extension, the two sides talked seriously about a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $110 million.

• Howard's friends have been buzzing all winter about how committed he was to improving his defense and conditioning. And while it's a little early to assess his leather craftwork, there's no doubt he's in the best shape of his career, after dropping 20 pounds in the offseason.

"This is the best I've seen him [look] the last couple of years, as far as his weight goes," Manuel said. "And he looks hard, and he's very strong. When he gets back to the point where he goes up and he's relaxed and he concentrates just on hitting the ball hard, it's hard to tell how many [home runs] he can hit."

One more from Manuel on Howard: "I think his best years are ahead of him." Scary thought.

• But Howard isn't even the weight-loss champ in his own clubhouse. Brett Myers has subtracted 30 pounds, taking him from more than 250 pounds to just more than 220.

"That's a good sign," Manuel said. "I think he's going to have a big year."

Well, if he does, it would be an excellent time for Myers to have one, since he can be a free agent next winter.

"This is the last year on his deal," the manager said. "And I think he's out there to make sure he gets another good deal -- and stays with the Phillies."

• While Manuel's players gave his speech great reviews, the manager intimated he's saving his most inspirational pearls for the arrival of his full squad Tuesday.

"Today's [speech] wasn't very prepared," he said. "The next one I'll try to prepare. But usually when I do prepare, I'll look down and I can't find where I'm at, so I'll start making it up."