CD's Connect the Dots... Camp Kumbaya

The images are impossible to ignore. As reports filter in from Clearwater, it's as if the team has been transformed from 25 angry men to Charlie's team of happy campers. While this promises nothing, it certainly beats the often tempestous ways of recent springs. Perhaps it's just a passing fancy, guarenteed to fade with the first three game losing streak. Yet, perhaps it portends a team ready to fulfill all the "potential" heard but rarely seen over the past few seasons. Call it Camp Kumbaya.

This writer still maintains it started last September. It began when the team realized the Bowa Era was about to end, and the suffocating air of tension and distrust might well become a thing of the past. It showed in their play, as well as their record. It began on September 3, two days after the Atlanta Braves had left Philadelphia for dead with a two game sweep of the Phils at Citizens Bank Park. These two losses left the Phillie crew at 64-69 and looking for all the world like a fourth place club in the NL East.

It was then, and only then, that everyone from GM Ed Wade on down to the clubhouse manager realized that Bowa's days were not just numbered, but encased in stone. It was then, and only then, that the team suddenly realized it was time to just go out and play, tension and turmoil forgotten. It was then that I believe the team developed the identity that they carry with them even today. The team of September 3 was as different from the team of September 2 as night and day.

They began to show character. They began to display a "never say die" attitude. They decided to forget the past and forge a future. Few remember it. I do. For the final 29 games, the Phils posted a 22-7 record and it was earned on merit. They beat all comers, from the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates to the kingly Braves in Atlanta. They even buried the ghosts of Marlin domination with six solid wins in the final seven games with the Fish. Call me Pollyanna, but I maintained then, and maintain now, that the team finally developed an identity that will serve them well in 2005.

Add to this mix the calming quality of new manager, Charlie Manuel, and Charlie's Angels might well fly higher than any so called baseball expert predicts this season. Certainly the early returns are promising. Injury reports on Billy Wagner, Pat Burrell, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf are encouraging. Slugger Jim Thome seems ready to accept the leadership role he inherited when he inked his long term contract. The team has a bounce and step that just seems real and not contrived. Call it Camp Kumbaya.

Oh, the news has not been one hundred percent positive. Early on, the newest six million dollar man, Placido Polanco announced he would not be content in a utility role. Third baseman David Bell was sidelined with recurring "back spasms." It seemed he might miss as much as two weeks, though he was listed as day-to-day. Yet, even these stories carried a certain synchronicity to them, as less time for Bell meant more time for Polanco, and maybe it would all work out for the best.

Even the "look" of the team was different, more trendy, less sculptured. Players like Burrell, Wolf and recently re-signed Jason Michaels reported to camp with noticably longer locks, and when have we seen this before? Not since the heyday of the late 70's version of the Philadelphia Phillies has this team appeared as confident and relaxed.

Admittedly, I am not proposing a Samson Complex here, and no amount of hair will transform a losing team into a winning one, but if Burrell's comfort level means a return to the slugger of '02 as opposed to the confused version of '03-04, then so much the better! Same with Wolf and Michaels, both of whom are counted on to carry sizeable portions of skill and deft into the coming campaign.

To his credit, Manuel has been orchestrating the song with smart words of encouragement and wisdom. When asked about Polanco's demand for regular playing time, he indicated a willingness to hear honest thoughts and claimed to be unaffected by them. He made sure all players knew of his trust and faith in them, while displaying no favorites whatsoever.

He was effusive in his praise of catcher Mike Lieberthal, a frequent victim of Bowa's wrath, and seemed willing to allow Iron Mike to call his own game, a no-no under Bowa and former pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan. This might well rejuvenate the bat of Lieberthal, as often a catcher concentrating on the defensive end of the game actually finds that his offense improves.

Manuel also made it clear that second base belonged to Chase Utley, and this talk reverberated all the way down to the farm system. Under Bowa, the words "veteran presence" were a consistent refrain, and players like Utley and Michaels chafed under a system that seemed to reward service rather than talent. If there is a truism in sport, it is that talent wins out in the end, experience running a distant second. This plays well to youngsters like Ryan Howard, Gavin Floyd and Marlon Byrd, and should give impetus to a group of minor leaguers strong on talent but short on years of service.

Not that Manuel is immune to the luxury of experience, however. Veterans like centerfielder Kenny Lofton, catcher Todd Pratt and relievers Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell are being counted on by Manuel to carry more than a tune when it comes to singing a song at Camp Kumbaya. They are counted on to produce in championship fashion, and well might.

Lofton has been on more than a few teams over the past several seasons, from the Indians to the Giants, from the Cubs to the Yankees. Though rumors have swirled of his dislike for platooning, he has never let it affect his play, and every team was better with him in the lineup. He seems one of those blessed athletes, who have playoffs following him everywhere he goes. It is hoped that this gold dust follows him to Philadelphia, and it well might.

In Todd Pratt, Manuel has another coach on the field, and it will surprise no one if Pratt someday becomes a Phillie coach. Not this year, though. He is being counted on to back up Lieberthal, possibly play a bit of first base against tough lefties, and generally add a touch of class to the team. As for Cormier and Worrell, they are expected to bridge the gap from starting pitcher to ace closer, Billy Wagner, a role they relish and expect to perform well.

Speaking of starting pitching, even here the Phils current five come off as more "Dave Clark Five" than "Question Mark and the Mysterions." Vicente Padilla has dazzled one and all with his early stuff, and even spoke a few words in English, a revelation from the normally reticent one. Same with Wolf, who looks fully recovered from what ailed him in '04.

Youngish Brett Myers came to camp in excellent shape, and vowed to prove once and for all what all the fuss was about when he debuted in the big leagues back in 2002. It says here that Myers will prove more pitching ace than head case this summer after two seasons of inconsistent performance. Even still, for all his foibles, this is a hurler with 25 wins in his first two full seasons on the hill, no small feat for any pitcher. Watch for Myers to win 15 games in 2005.

Current ace-in-waiting Jon Lieber, he of the rebuilt arm and ground ball stuff, seems fully confortable in his new role and can be counted on for 200 innings of tough toil on the hill. Same with re-signed Cory Lidle, another ground ball hurler more suited for CBP than recently departed hurlers, Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton. Lieber and Lidle might well prove that "L" comes before "M" in ways far beyond the letters of the alphabet. At Camp Kumbaya, this is the song they sing this spring.

Of course, no discussion of the current Phillie roster would be complete without at least a brief mentions of Mssrs. Ryan Howard and Bobby Abreu, two outfielders with completely different roles to play in this years sonata. Abreu is once again counted on to be one of the less appreciated "stars" in baseball, a player who will never truly receive the acclaim he deserves.

The simple fact is that there are few right fielders in baseball better than Abreu, and when we watch him play we are watching in action the greatest right fielder in Phillie history. His numbers will someday be discussion fodder for baseball statniks, and his consistency will be marveled. Pencil him for a plus .300 batting average, over 100 base on balls, 160 games played, and a near 30-30 level of stolen bases and home runs.

His defense, though less consistent, is far from the mediocrity that his critics often proclaim. He catches most of what's catchable and his powerful right arm usually discourages runners from advancing on singles to right. Though many still think he would be most valuable batting first or second, he is still one of the more skilled number three hitters in baseball.

As for Howard, I am happy to report that he is getting more than his share of action in the outfield, something the Phils were loath to even consider a year ago. This can only be good news for both Howard and the Phils as the more positions he can play, the more his power bat will be used in a future Phillie lineup. Suffice it to say that both Abreu and Howard were crooning happy tunes at Camp Kumbaya this spring.

Yes, the tune is upbeat, the songs happy and cheery. Certainly its early, and the games have yet to be played. Most baseball writers see the Phils as a possible fourth place club in the competitve NL East, behind the perennial champion Braves, the talented Marlins and the upstart New York Mets. In fact, only the Washington Nationals are picked to finish below the supposedly phloundering Phillies.

Yet to listen to the happy beat of a suddenly contented crew, it seems unlikely that there are three teams better than this club right now. Right now the Phils continue to make merry with the sounds coming out of Clearwater, and the merry tunes give rise to a phrase not often heard in these parts for quite some time. Spring training, for once, has all the appearances not of a boot camp, but of Camp Kumbaya.

Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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