After one day, Phillies look like smart shoppers

The Phillies' highly-paid acquisitions paid big dividends on Opening Day.

Originally Published: March 31, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- When you sign an IOU for $111.9 million, you'd kind of like to get your money's worth. Life is funny like that.

Well, it just so happens that $111.9 million is the amount of money the Phillies owe three guys named Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and David Bell. And even though they're only one game into their Phillies careers, it's safe to say that so far, nobody in Philadelphia is saying, "They shoulda spent it on cheesesteaks."

One game into their Phillies careers, their team is still undefeated, after an 8-5 Opening-Day pounding of Pudge Rodriguez's Marlins on Monday, right there in the House That Marino Built.

One game into their Phillies careers, Thome is hitting .750, Millwood is leading the league (not to mention the Once and Future Aces of Atlanta) in wins, and Bell is on a pace to score 486 runs.

So one game into their Phillies careers, the money looks well-spent, the GM looks smarter than Branch Rickey and the future looks more beautiful than Cameron Diaz.

Only one problem: the season isn't over. They'll all be forced to play again -- about 161 more times. So that'll change. All of it. We promise.

But the beauty of Opening Day in this sport is that it's only a taste, not the whole darned feast. It's a taste of what could be, what might be, what will be if everyone remembers to follow the blueprint.

And for the Phillies, a team trying to reinvent itself as an NL East power with one stroke of the checkbook (or three), the Opening-Day blueprint looked just how the architect drew it up.

On the first pitch thrown to him as a Phillie, Thome pounded a cinematic double to the track in right-center that merely brought in the first run of the season. That was just the start of an afternoon in which Thome got more hits in his first Opening Day as a Phillie (three) than he ever got in nine Opening Days as an Indian. This guy, quipped Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen, "is a movie waiting to happen."

Bell, meanwhile, scored three runs in the first four innings, reached base four times, had a home run curve foul "and must have caught about 15 outs for me," Millwood speculated.

And Millwood -- heading for the mound after his two old pals from Atlanta, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, gave up 10 runs in 10 2/3 innings -- allowed just two singles over the first 5 2/3 innings, neither of which left the infield. Eventually, a two-run homer by Pudge Rodriguez ruined Millwood's shutout. But "he lived up," said manager Larry Bowa, "to all his expectations."

What was especially amazing, though, given all the brilliant ideas that have gone wrong in Philadelphia over the last two decades, was all three of these men did.

Imagine the shock of millions of Philadelphians, sitting in front of their televisions waiting for everything to go wrong -- and by some miracle, it all went right. For one day, anyway.

"I'm sure a lot of people were looking at us, wanting to see what would happen," said Millwood, after the first Opening-Day start of his life. "Which is fine. If nobody was looking at us, we wouldn't be very good. I'm sure everybody is trying to figure out what we're capable of. And I think we showed a lot of people today exactly what we're capable of."

Well, if Thome and Bell reach base eight times every day, this team is capable of throwing a lot of "8"s on the old scoreboard. And if Millwood can take shutouts into the sixth inning for about 34 more starts, he's capable of being the bona fide ace this team needs to take the heat off the young guys who will follow him in the rotation.

And if all that happens enough, the manager might even be capable of getting through an entire season without having to look up the definition of "apoplectic" in his local dictionary.

"Those three guys were right in the center of everything today," said Bowa. "Whether that was ironic or not, to have them in the middle of everything that was going on was great. But they do need help from the surrounding cast. I hope the rest of these guys don't just sit back and enjoy the ride. These guys can't do it by themselves."

This wasn't one of those days when the manager, or anybody else, was focusing much on the fact that his No. 1 and No. 2 hitters (Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco) went 0 for 11. Or that the reliever being groomed as the closer of the future, Carlos Silva, turned a blowout into an 8-5 game. But the Phillies do have holes, and worries. And there will be days ahead when all of them will look far more ominous than they did Monday.

But for this team, this was a day to dream, not scream. And the dreams all start with the new guys, because this was what they were brought to Philadelphia to do -- not just to earn their money but to weave those dreams.

"They've changed the whole complexion here -- not only with this team but in this clubhouse," said veteran reliever Dan Plesac, who literally unretired this winter after the acquisitions of those three leading men. "To win here, we're going to need 25 guys pulling in the same direction. But you know some will have to pull more than others."

Yup. Like James Howard Thome, for instance.

Here Thome was, on the first Opening Day of his Life After Cleveland, the eyes of the world and a skeptical city beaming down on him. Here he was, being asked to justify the biggest contract in franchise history and to carry this team up a whole new mountain.

So he admitted to walking into this Opening Day with a full-blown case of serious "anxiety." But you get the feeling this guy has a better sense for the dramatic than Sir John Gielgud. In his first spring-training swing of the bat as a Phillie, he hit a home run. Monday, in his first official swing as a Phillie, he gave his team a lead on Opening Day.

Who the heck writes the scripts for this guy -- Spielberg?

Thome tried his best to low-key his two spectacular entrances, saying: "Respectfully, I like to try to stay in my lane. I understand the impact of it. I just try not to think about it too much."

But he'd actually revealed his true emotions by pumping his fist when he reached second base -- a pump that said this beat the heck out of a three-pitch punchout.

"When you drive in a run on Opening Day, especially the first run to get your team on top, it's hard to explain that feeling," Thome said. "That's right there with having that daughter."

Seven Phillies runs and nine Phillies hits followed that one. But still, said Bell, "that was the biggest hit of the game."

"He's amazing," Bell said. "You almost expect him to do it. It's hard to say one run won that game. But that was a big hit right there."

After that -- with the help of three Marlins errors, a Pudge passed ball and a messy outing by Florida's 22-year-old Opening-Day starter, Josh Beckett -- the Phillies roared out to an 8-0 lead after only 24 batters had come to the plate. They hadn't won an opener by more runs than that since Grover Cleveland Alexander won a 10-1 game in 1914.

But even though the final score looked a lot closer, Millwood made enough of a statement while he was out there to ease any doubts that the Braves might have had ulterior motives for trading him last December.

"I was more nervous about being the new guy on the team, stepping into the No. 1 spot in the rotation, than I was about it being Opening Day," Millwood said. "Not that I didn't feel I can pitch. But I wanted to prove something to these guys early."

It's funny how, in theory, opening day doesn't prove more than 162nd of anything. But for this Phillies team, in this time and place in its rocky franchise history, this was a day that seemed like more than that.

It may not tell anybody where this club is going. But it did tell us -- and them -- how it hopes to get there.

"I think we knew before today we had a good team," Plesac said. "Now we have 161 games to find out how good we really are."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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