Connect the Dots... Reading Between The Lines

These are the times that try Phillie fans souls. The seemingly silent time when the weather is too cold and the baseball news too old. Yet a very wise teacher once taught me lessons I never forgot, lessons that a Phillie fan would do well to remember now. These are helpful tools that could sort out subtle messages that teams, players and agents alike send out on a daily basis… the lessons of learning how to read between the lines.

The messages are everywhere if we just look and listen - subtle, often times misleading. It is called "baseball speak", and it's never spoken louder than during the off-season when negotiating between agents, players and teams takes on a life form all its own, a mind-game at its' best.

"Baseball speak" is a language meant to send a message, and if you can learn to read between the lines, you will not only decipher the message, but also understand the meaning and the impact it's supposed to accomplish. It is a fascinating game played by people well versed in the language. Happily for the Phillie fandom, it is also a game that GM Ed Wade is learning to play well!

By the time this column reaches print, the announcement may already be made, but here is a great example of reading between the lines. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times had a story about the Anaheim Angels. In the article it stated that the Angels had made a decision to sign a top free agent pitcher quickly and were in discussions with Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar.

This was classic "baseball speak" at its best, and the simple trick of reading between the lines indicated that the Angels were about to sign Escobar. How so? First, it is widely known in baseball circles that Pettitte will either resign with the Yankees, or go home to play in Houston.

Pettitte may love the Magic Kingdom as a vacation destination but he has no intention of coming west to finish his career. So it was quite simple to eliminate him.

Second, it is well known that the Yankees are wooing Colon, so he certainly would not sign with the Angels without first going back to New York for a counter offer. Thus, it was quite easy to eliminate Colon. This left Escobar as the only player left…. a brilliant public relations move for the Angels!

By placing Escobar, a second tier free agent pitcher, in the same sentence with first tier starters Pettitte and Colon, it was meant to excite an Angel fan base into thinking that all three pitchers are of the same ilk!

When the Angels announce the signing of Escobar, and it could come Monday, the average Angel fan will applaud the acquisition of a Pettitte-Colon type pitcher! "Baseball speak" is at its best sending a clear message to Angel fans that they have signed a top free agent pitcher. A great marketing strategy!

As for the Phillies, they were involved in an amazing case of "baseball speak" this week, and the ability to read between the lines will make printed statements much easier to understand.

Remarkably, it even placed sometimes-contentious agent Scott Boras on the same side of the fence as Ed Wade, though they were speaking to entirely different audiences. It is no secret that Wade's goal during this off-season is to acquire a top notch starting pitcher, and Kevin Millwood is one of his targets.

It is also no secret that Boras, who represents Millwood, is attempting to get the best and longest possible deal he can make for his client. Here is where it gets interesting. Both Wade and Boras floated a story to a top baseball columnist about their intentions for Millwood.

Wade indicated that he might be inclined to sign Millwood to a one-year contract through arbitration, and Boras indicated that his client might just be equally disposed to accept this agreement. Sounds simple, yes?

Yes, only if you choose NOT to read between the lines of these statements. While fully acknowledging that Wade may indeed wish to have Millwood back, this was a clear message meant to be heard all the way back to Arizona. Not coincidentally, the land of cactus and desert is also the current home of one Curt Schilling, a player the Phils covet… at a reasonable price.

By letting the D'backs brain trust know that they have other options, they were sending a not so subtle message that if the D'backs don't lower their demands for ransom, the Phils have other options. Wade is playing a game of Russian Roulette, albeit an effective one.

Make no mistake; there is no one better at this game than Boras. He is the master of "baseball speak", and if you don't listen carefully, his message will be lost in the translation that will lend itself to much confusion in fans' minds.

When Boras indicated that his client, Millwood, might be amenable to accepting arbitration, he was not only keeping the lines of communication open with the Phils, but was sending a message to other potential suitors that they should be ready with a great offer, and quickly. Also, in "baseball speak" language, by asking for a five-year deal, Boras was really indicating that he would settle for three years.

This little verbal dalliance was remarkable for the messages sent, and the number of people that were supposed to read it. From Wade's side of the fence, it was meant for the D'backs, Bartolo Colon, as well as Millwood.

From Boras' point of view, if the Yankees, Braves, Red Sox or Cardinals care to make a bid on his top-notch free agent hurler, they had best not wait! The only thing that would have made this verbal exchange more amazing is if Wade and Boras had walked off arm in arm to the beat of "We Are Family"!

Please note that this weeks' verbal partnership could well evolve into a "marriage of convenience" for the Phils and Millwood. The Phils certainly value his talents and if a one-year deal can be struck, they would be more than happy to do so.

As for Millwood, he and his agent may find that a suddenly tepid market is not conducive to the long term deal that he covets and another year in the City of Brotherly Love may be the best way to prove his worth. After all, the Phils are seemingly one top pitcher from a playoff birth, and Millwood fills that role nicely.

Nevertheless, it is best to keep in mind that this was a clear case of "reading between the lines" and that the message sent was not the message meant. In other words, it would not be wise for a Phillie fan to necessarily pencil in Millwood's name as the opening day hurler in Pittsburgh.

What about Schilling, you ask? Keep your pad and pens close by as there is about to be another baseball message sent, probably this week, and it is no doubt meant for the Phillies, and possibly the Yankees. This message will be sent after the Red Sox announce the hiring of former Phillie manager Terry "Tito" Francona as their new manager for 2004.

Francona managed Schilling from 1997-2000 and was quite well liked by the hurler. Easy going and player friendly, Francona was a welcome respite for the intense Schilling. In fact, Francona often deferred to Schilling when it came to allowing him to pitch deep into ball games, regardless of the pitch count.

Phillie fans still recoil at the memory of Schilling, fresh off of arm surgery, throwing 138 pitches in a complete game shutout in Atlanta in 2000. No doubt, Schill felt fresh, and Francona allowed him to continue. There is little doubt that the decision might have been different with a firmer manager.

The point of this story is that when Francona becomes the manager, Schilling and the D'backs may have another potential bidder in the Schilling sweepstakes… the Boston Red Sox. Make no mistake that this trial balloon will at least be floated, though a fly ball pitcher like Schilling would likely suffer from pitching in Fenway Park, with its' homer friendly Green Monster!

Yet, undoubtedly, reports will surface out of Arizona that the Red Sox are investigating the possibility of acquiring Schilling. Reading between the lines will indicate that this message is not meant as much for Red Sox fans, as it is meant for Phillie and Yankee decision makers.

Will it work? Who knows? Time will tell whom the best poker players are in this winter game of "baseball speak". What is known is this… for the Phillie fan who is anxious to make sense of it all, the winter will not be so cold, nor the baseball news so old - when they learn to combine that morning cup of coffee with the ability to read between the lines.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! Your Co-Fan, CD from the Left Coast.

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