Phils loosen up under Manuel
For the fourth time in five seasons, Philadelphia is in position to make its first postseason appearance since 1993. Maybe the results won't be any different, but with the man they call "Jolly Cholly" (Charlie Manuel) at the helm instead of Larry Bowa for those other runs, the attitude is decidedly different.
Valid or not, the blame for some of the Phils' recent failures focused on Bowa's abject intensity and how it would wear down the team by September. Now, the criticism is that Manuel may be too laid-back and loose. But there's no question the atmosphere is a world apart from how it was under Bowa.
Can you picture Mike Lieberthal doing his nightly, contorting, robotic dance in Bowa's dugout? Just before the first pitch, the whole team waits for Lieberthal to return from the bullpen to see it. To one media member, Manuel said, "Make sure you catch this. It's hilarious!"
The Phillies will have a lot more fun if they can hold on to the wild-card lead. But even if they collapse again, they won't be tearing themselves up over it, or watching their manager implode. Manuel's philosophy is simple: "This is fun, and the bigger the game, the more fun it is."
To be playing even bigger games in October, Manuel needs Vicente Padilla to continue the tear he's been on since the All-Star break. His first half was so awful, the Phils contemplated dramatic steps that included a demotion, a trade or his release.
At the break, bullpen coach Ramon Henderson, who served as Padilla's interpreter last season, sat him down and tried to encourage Padilla and help him get his confidence back. Until last weekend's meltdown in Arizona, Padilla had eight straight quality starts. He has a 2.98 ERA since the break.
It's common for veteran players to get moved right before the deadline to shore up weaknesses on contending teams. Michael Tucker, acquired from the Giants Aug. 28, gives the Phillies a veteran bat off the bench. Because he was in the same time zone when the trade was made, Tucker joined the Phillies last weekend in Phoenix without missing a game, and he was able to bring some of his bats with him.
There were a couple of problems. First, Jimmy Rollins loves Tucker's bats, so he instantly rifled through Tucker's bag and grabbed some as Tucker arrived at Bank One Ballpark. A more difficult problem was getting red shoes to conform to major-league rules regarding uniform unanimity. Fortunately, Tucker's old teammate, Kenny Lofton, wears a size 10½ like Tucker, and he loaned Tucker a pair. So now two Phillies have shoes with "K-Lo" -- Lofton's nickname -- stitched in the heel.
Although Philadelphia is Tucker's seventh major-league team, the only Phillies player besides Lofton who had been a former teammate was Jon Lieber, and that was when they were minor leaguers in the Royals' system.
Even Manuel had an emotional time with the word that David Bell's cousin, Timothy Bell Jr., had been killed along with 13 other Marines during the first week of August in Iraq. Bell not only played the night he found out, but he never missed a game because the Phillies were rained out the day Bell took a train to Arlington National Cemetery for the military funeral.
Neither Bell nor his dad, Buddy, who is Timothy's uncle, had ever been to Arlington National Cemetery. And beyond the grief of paying tribute to Timothy Jr., who died at 22, both were overwhelmed by the endless stream of graves and the serenity of the burial grounds. Timothy Jr.'s pastor described him as "a man of steel and velvet" at his service in Ohio, and David said he was a hero "who wanted to be in the service as long as I've know him." Tim Sr. is the closest of Buddy Bell's three younger brothers, and he said of Tim Jr., "he was the last of the real John Waynes, only tougher. It's very important to me that everyone knows he did this for them."
David Bell's brother-in-law, Kevin Kimminer, is scheduled to be sent to Iraq later this year.
For Tony Clark, it was a happier homecoming. His wife's brother is Terry Fryery, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, who came back from his latest tour and threw out the first pitch last weekend in Bank One Ballpark. Clark caught the pitch from his brother-in-law and bought 2,000 tickets for fellow airmen from nearby Luke Air Force Base for the game that night.
Much like David Bell's brother-in-law and his fallen cousin, Fryery is a career military man from a military family, and he's going back to Iraq for another tour by November.
Out of nowhere, Todd Jones has become one of baseball's most reliable closers. Jones always wanted another shot at closing, but realized his age (37) and recent past made that unlikely.
"Hey, I was released by the Devil Rays! Not too many guys come back from that and do what I'm doing now for the Marlins, and in meaningful games," Jones said.
He might not have gotten that opportunity if not for Guillermo Mota's injuries and inconsistency. Jones got the closer job simply because he'd done it before, and there were no better options. Now healthy again, with a plus fastball back, Jones gives a lot of credit to catcher Paul Lo Duca.
"He gave me a lot of confidence, to believe in my stuff, and [he] calls a great game for me. Now there's no situation I don't want to be in, or think I can't get out of," he said.
Even on a day off, Lo Duca has come into a game late to catch Jones. But Jones knows, from his recent struggles the past four seasons, his confidence can go away again quickly. Jones has pitched for seven teams since 2001, and had only five saves in the last three years coming into this season.
Jones brought his son Alex with him on a recent trip to Wrigley Field, and bought a Cubs disposable camera in the gift shop and was taking pictures of Alex with stars such as Nomar Garciaparra. Alex plays Little League, but instead of a Marlins' jersey, Alex was wearing a T-shirt of the rock group Staind. The Grammy Award-winning rockers were not only also guests of Jones that day, but sat with Alex in the stands to watch his dad strike out Derrek Lee with two on in the eighth and get the save in the ninth.
Garciaparra's move to third base, which he hadn't played since his junior year in high school, came out of necessity, not only because of Aramis Ramirez's injury, but possibly to resurrect Garciaparra's career. He has been riddled with injuries to his legs and back, which might not be strained as much at third base as they were at shortstop.
Garciaparra has been working with Cubs third base coach Chris Speier on the conversion, which presents a number of adjustments.
"The angle of the ball is completely different," Speier said. "As a shortstop, you're used to seeing the pitcher's release, the entire swing of the batter, where the catcher sets up. You've got the best vision zone on the field. At third, you see the back of the batter, and don't see the ball until he makes contact out front, and then it's right on you.
"I also told him to keep his glove lower. At short, you've got time to adjust and get it down, but at third, you're better off having it already down there."
Another major adjustment for Garciaparra is that he tends to throw somewhat sidearmed and fling the ball. At third, he's working on throwing more over the top. When he goes on the free-agent market this winter, Garciaparra could end up as a third baseman somewhere.
Ozzie Guillen is by far the loosest guy in his own clubhouse, so White Sox players can't help but stay loose with a manager so whacked out. But just to keep them inspired, during their recent 10-game road trip, Guillen passed out T-shirts to each of his players that say "Ozzie Ball means " on the front, and "heart, brains and balls" on the back.
The Sox, who have had a commanding lead all season, are fighting against complacency. As pitching coach Don Cooper put it, with a recent eight-game losing streak, and their lead down to seven games, "Maybe this is our scare. We need one, and this could be it. But even though we've been playing just about .500 ball since the break, if we just stay at that pace, we're gonna win about 96 games, and I think we're gonna play better than break-even ball from here on out."
Chicago's rotation is the deepest, most experienced, and one of the healthiest of any American League contender. But the innings are starting to pile up. Brandon McCarthy's second tour in the majors was a significant shot in the arm for the staff. As Cooper put it, "He had his ticket in his hand to make the jump to staying in the major leagues, and I told him it was time to punch it."
A brilliant spring training had analysts wondering how Chicago could keep the 22-year-old off the staff, but he failed miserably in his first two starts, especially against Texas. He went down to Triple-A Charlotte and worked with Juan Nieves on "staying back" and improving his command. McCarthy's solid start against those same Rangers in his last start fortified the White Sox through a doubleheader, saved wear and tear on a bullpen with closer Dustin Hermanson limited by an ailing back, and earned McCarthy the start on Labor Day at Fenway Park.
Mark Teixeira's manhandling of the Chicago pitching staff moved Mark Buehrle to wonder aloud whether the Rangers were stealing and flashing signs from their center-field offices. Although Buehrle later backed off the remarks, I went out to that area at Ameriquest Field, and you'd need a lighthouse beacon from that far away for the batter to see the signals.
Teixeira said he wouldn't even want the signs if he got them.
"Look, if you're signaling pitch location, half the time the pitcher can't hit the spot the catcher sets up in anyway," he said. "If I'm lunging outside for a pitch I think is going to be out there, and he comes up and in with a ball I could have pulled out of the yard, I've missed my chance. I don't want to know."
What Mark does want us to know is how much pride he takes in his defense at first base. He was named the American League's All-Star starter at first base primarily for his bat, but he's making more impressive plays on defense, and has the scrapes and bruises to show for his dives and knockdowns. He's doing well for a guy who never played anything but third base as an All-American at Georgia Tech. He switched between first and third with Giants rookie Lance Niekro during their summer together in the Cape Cod League in 1999. Neither had a first baseman's glove, so they shared the team's glove and would switch off every other series.
Who was the last Cubs player to wear No. 23 before Ryne Sandberg? None other than Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, during his 185 at-bat stay on Chicago's north side.
"I was just getting it warmed up for him and enshrinement," Tracy said.
Ironically, Tracy and Sandberg's sons now play together at Pepperdine, and Justin Sandberg and Chad Tracy are good friends.
Along with No. 14 Ernie Banks, and No. 10 Ron Santo, Billy Williams was on hand to see Sandberg's 23 go up below his No. 26. Williams remembered the day in 1987 when his number was immortalized. He had no idea it was going to happen. He simply thought it was "Billy Williams Day." But he heard cheering and turned around to see his jersey being raised atop the foul pole.
To this day, it still humbles him: "That's never coming down. As long as I live, and my kids and grandkids come to this park, they'll see that flying there and know it's for me, and it will always be there." It's also an honor and distinction Sandberg now shares.
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.
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