Philadelphia's Contenders

Naturally, all of the attention in Philadelphia is on the Eagles as they prepare for the Super Bowl and their showdown with New England. Still, there were days in the past - and hopefully, there will be days in the future - when the Phillies will bring the same sort of excitement to the city.

The excitement was palpable in the final moments of the Eagles win over the Atlanta Falcons. Emotions overflowed in the final moments and all fear washed away, as the Eagles took a 27-10 lead in the fourth uarter. The birds haden't even left the field, before people began to say the words that are sacred and holy in Philadelphia: Parade on Broad Street.

If the Eagles can beat the almighty New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Philadelphia will have their parade; a parade on that famous Center City street that the city hasn't experienced since 1980. That was of course the last year that the city of Philadelphia had something to truly celebrate, when the Phillies won the World Series. The Eagles would go to the Super Bowl that year, but would lose to the Oakland Raiders 27-10. Eagles fans have waited for the last 24 years to see this moment of great glory and they are riding high.

A little over a decade ago we saw a similar burst of joy and hope, when the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS and went to the World Series. The city went wild and the enthusiasm hit a fever pitch. We Believed. But fate and Joe Carter were with the Toronto Blue Jays and an NL Pennant would have to be enough for the fans.

The Eagles are now the team that Philadelphia is putting all of its hopes in. And a few days after the Eagles big day, Phillies first baseman Jim Thome discussed the football team's incredible success on a stop during the Phillies Winter Tour, saying "The Eagles have set the bar high." He then went on to say, "Man for man, we [The Phillies] match up with everybody in the division." As fans of the city's football team rejoice, Phillies fans have to ask themselves if Thome could be right, and are wondering when our beloved baseball team will also do something significant. It is the Eagles time. But do we believe that the Phillies will also be fielding a winner in a few weeks?

If pitching wins games, then we can understand what went wrong last season. The starting rotation was riddled with injury as was the bullpen. Kevin Millwood, the proposed ace of the starting five, faltered and Phillies fans questioned his commitment. When he pitched for Atlanta, he wasn't exactly known as an ambitious athlete, and as a Phillie he had specific rules about when he would practice. He had little success with those rules.

Going into last season, the Phillies bullpen was the talk of the baseball world. "On paper the Phillies are the team to beat," was the familiar adage of baseball pundits, coaches, managers and players. The bullpen had been the major concern for then manager Larry Bowa; he was thrilled when the Phillies signed Tim Worrell and traded for Billy Wagner. But according to Yogi Berra, "In baseball, you don't know nothing," and that is proven time and again. We could not have known the powerful duo of closer Billy Wagner and middle relief pitcher Ryan Madson, would be lost to injury for much of the season.

Injury would also strike starting pitchers Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, but truthfully they had experienced shaky times on the mound befor the injuries had even occurred. Something was not quite right from the very beginning.

And while outfielder Pat Burrell had obviously returned from his 2003 season of the abyss finishing the season hitting .257 and hitting 24 homeruns, he also showed how vulnerable he is to old habits. He exhibited what people felt was an increasingly obvious problem for "Pat The Bat"; mental strength. The pressure appeared to have gotten to him and he started his chest-puffing, homerun chasing once again. Jim Thome had a tough time getting on base and catcher Mike Lieberthal's fantastice previous season in which he hit a career high .313, was only a memory. Lieberthal had one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing with a .271 average, and going after pitches too aggressivley throughout the season.

The top hitters were not doing their jobs and pitching was a wreck. The winner that the entire city and most "experts" believed the Phillies were finally completely self destructed, when they went on a seven-game losing streak after the All-Star break that they would never recover from.

Philadelphia sports fans turned their weary eyes to the Eagles once again. And they would not be disappointed. Truth be told, I am an Eagles fan but a Phillies fanatic. I do not love football, but worship the great church of baseball. I live for it. But I found myself caught up in the frenzy and was thoroughly impressed by what I was watching. How could I not be, when in the background the Phillies were hardly making waves in the off-season? We were anticipating Ed Wade would make a play for outfielder Carlos Beltran, who was being hotly pursued by many teams including the Mets and Yankees. The Phillies did not get in the race, and instead signed Yankee Kenny Lofton. We wanted the Phillies to improve pitching and perhaps bring Tim Hudson or Carl Pavano to the team. We needed an ace and we knew we didn't have it.

While Pavano showed a slight interest in the Phillies when touring around cities and meeting with many teams, no one was surprised when he signed with the Yankees. The Phillies would go on to sign Jon Lieber of the Yankees, a number four or five guy and not a number one starter by most standards. It was comforting to know that Wade would not part with top prospects Chase Utley, Cole Hamels (Did you hear the shoe drop?) and Gavin Floyd. But the debacle of Placido Polanco accepting arbitration and becoming a highly paid bench-player at 4-million plus dollars (And puttting the Phillies over their payroll of 93 million last year) was the topper to an otherwise disappointing and frustrating off-season. The Eagles were looking pretty good to me.

If anything, it opened my eyes and changed my perspective on the Phillies a little. When Terrell Owens suffered a sprained ankle, Eagles fans worried their chances might be totally blown without the star player; the combination of Quarterback Donovan McNabb and Owens had been explosive and entertaining in the weeks prior. Owens absence scared fans. But the power of that team would become clear. With or without Owens the Eagles were a great team. All the while, Coach Andy Reid kept a cool head and a steely focus. I have never been a bigger football fan and admired any Eagles team more than in the past few weeks. They overcame adversity and injury, and everyeone came to play their best regardless of the obstacles before them. The difficulties seemed to fuel them. In 2004, the Phillies would not follow the same path. Nothing appeared to fuel them and when the team needed to pull together and step up to the challenge, they failed miserably.

How will this year be any different for the Phillies? What has changed? A lot of the faces are the same and the new faces have hardly excited anyone who follows the team; every new player that Wade signed he proudly displayed as one of the best, but to my knowledge no team was chasing after Lofton or Lieber. There is of course Wade's "potential" factor, which is incredibly important to the GM. As long as a player has potential, he figures they are worth it. It has occurred to many people that perhaps Pat Burrell is playing up to his potential, and he is a .250 hitter that will then go through a long slump.

And Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and David Bell are all players who produced most of the time and showed an ability to handle pressure; only Bell's health is a question mark going into this season. Jim Thome will continue to hit homeruns and be the positive leader of this ballclub, but he has to do the little things too. That and a broken thumb were his biggest struggles of the 2004 season.

As far as pitching goes, starter Brett Myers is the major concern. If Joe Kerrigan's approach was part of the problem, that excuse is gone. So now let's assume that Myers and the other pitchers who were unhappy with Kerrigan will thrive under new pitching coach Rich Dubee. New hitting coach Milt Thompson noted that nobody believed the 1993 Phillies were going to amount to anything at the begininning of that season, and they proved the naysayers wrong. Well, I for one would love to see this group of Phillies pull off what that team did.

The Eagles have exhibited grace under fire. They have given the city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia sports fans what they so richly deserve, and what they have stayed dedicated to for the last 24 years: a chance. The Eagles saw their "potential" for greatness and continued to focus on it even when the chips were down. They did not make excuses and they did not break under the strain of the challenge. Let this be a lesson to the 2005 Phillies. No more excuses; get out there and show us this potential we have heard so much about. The Eagles took flight. Here's hoping the Phillies find their wings.


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