Is this to be the fate of this season's Phils? History tells us that July is usually an eventful month for our Phightin's. It often signifies "flight or fight", the time when the team either makes their burst towards playoff contention, or the period when current GM Ed Wade makes his often ill-advised deal of a Phillie superstar [read Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen] or, worse yet, aquires an overage middle inning relief pitcher with a shelf life of less than a month.
Yet, in a strange bit of possible syncronicity, Philadelphia was beset by whispers of another sort as June turned to July, and they not only involved Wade, but possibly Schilling, also. Though both seemingly unrelated stories may mean nothing in the short term, it does not take a giant leap of faith to place the stories face to face and come up with an eventual story that could still make for a Philadelphia Classic.
Chapter one involved a rumor making the rounds in the City of Brotherly Love that Wade, who has been almost profusely attempting to trade slugging minor league prospect Ryan Howard, was told that any future decision to trade Howard would be made by someone "higher up." Far from being confirmed, it nevertheless had the semblance of truth to it for several reasons.
The first reason was the play of the team itself. After the brilliant 12-1 homestand in early June, the team has fallen flat on it's face to the tune of 10 losses in the next 13 games. This served not only to dishearten a city made skeptical by too many years of failure, but to weaken an already uneasy grip that Wade has on the future of this team. Why, you may ask?
Simply put, this team was performing on all cylinders when Wade reacted to a rumor filtering through the grapevine of an impending trade of reliever Ugueth Urbina to either the rival Atlanta Braves or Florida Marlins. While both were, and still may be, in need of a trusty closer, it is almost always unwise for a GM to react, rather than act.
His reaction to this rumor was to trade standout infielder Placido Polanco to the Detroit Tigers for Urbina. Please note that not only was Polanco hitting very well at the time of the trade, but the Phils were in the midst of winning 7 of 8 and hitting the ball quite famously. Now trading Polanco in and of itself may not have been the worst deal Wade ever made, but A: the timing of it was terrible and B: the acquisition of a fly ball pitching Jose Mesa clone seemed ill-advised even for the most vociferous Wade defenders.
True enough, the Phils continued on their winning ways for five more games, yet those storm clouds that I discussed earlier were already on the way during this five game stretch. For one thing, Urbina's debut as a Phil nearly turned a 10-4 lead into a staggering late game defeat before the real closer, Billy Wagner, had to put the breaks on what was now a 10-8 game.
The storm clouds continued that following weekend as the Milwaukee Brewers were swept by the Phils, but not in a convincing way at all. Yours truly attended or listened to all three games and, truth be told, the Brewers could easily have been the sweepers instead of the swept. All three games were that close and I couldn't help but feel uneasy about the way the team was beginning to live and die by the home run.
For all his supposed faults, Polanco was a trusty and willing hitter, who never tired of hitting behind runners, moving runners along with ground balls and basically helping the team to manufacture those oh so important runs. It is not surprising that the Tigers are winning regularly with Polanco in the lineup. His presence will always supercede any statistical numbers he may or may not put up.
This trade, and the following free fall may or may not have been coincidental, but this much is known. Since the slump began, Wade has been on the phone attempting to pry any viable left-handed starter away from an interested seller. To be fair, the Phils also suffered a tough blow when lefty Randy Wolf went down during the Brewer series with arm miseries, but this alone was not the reason for the collapse.
All this did was give Wade another reason to seemingly jettison Howard out of town as quickly as possible, and he may still succeed. His offers to Toronto for Ted Lilly, Oakland for Barry Zito and possibly to Pittsburgh for Mark Redman have thus far been fruitless. For this, Phillie fans may soon be eternally grateful. For one thing, Howard continues to be a one man wrecking crew at Scranton with an average still on the north side of .370 and 16 home runs in less than 60 games!
Simply put, Howard has produced in the past season and one half among the greatest periods of offensive production in Phillie minor league history. For all his greatness in the minors, Richie Allen never hit like this in the minors. Nor Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski or Pat Burrell. Yet, all have one common thread to tie them together. All were highly esteemed Phillie prospects, and all eventually made it big in PhillieLand.
Yet, for some reason, Wade and Company seem to have witnessed a hole in the bat of Howard that no pitcher seems to have found themselves. Wade has seemed bent on swapping Howard before the July 31st deadline but happily for Phillie fans, this madness may have had the brakes put on it by someone within the Phillie organization with the clout to do it.
Of course, if the rumor is true, then specualtion would be placed at Managing General Partner, Dave Montgomery's door as he would have the power to do it. Still, Monty has for the most part been a hands off owner, and to his credit, has given Wade a budget and then allowed Wade a free hand to spend it. No, this writer thinks that the person who might just have the clout, and reason, to stop a Howard trade would be former Managing General Partner, Bill Giles.
Giles is still active in daily Phillie doings and is said to regret that he ever relinquished his authority to Monty. Even more interesting is the fact that Giles is very good friends with unemployed former Astros' GM, Gerry Hunsicker, who now resides in Philadelphia and has been a life long Phillie fan. It is no secret that Hunsicker has been given more than a wink and a nod assurance that if Wade goes, Hunsicker will have first crack at the opening.
It is not beyond belief that Giles may already have put out "whispers" to Hunsicker about the team's unhappiness with the direction Wade has led them, and it might just be Hunsicker who is insisting that a future Phillie team without Howard would be a poorer team indeed. In fact, Hunsicker was famous for two things while employed in Houston...his ability to cultivate a strong farm system and his recognition that a good team becomes great when it acquires a strong top of the rotation starting pitcher.
Hunsicker was the mastermind of the acquisistion of not only Randy Johnson, but was persuasive enough to lure not only Andy Pettitte, but Roger Clemens to Astroville. Not to be ignored was the fact that it was also Hunsicker who pryed several top pitching prospects from Wade and Company in the Billy Wagner trade. This indicates that he is not only daring, but understands the need to balance a top of the rotation "star" hurler with lower level young talent.
If the whispers are true that Wade has been told that he is no longer the lead man in any Howard deals, then the story certainly makes sense that the team has decided not to allow him to further plunder an already shallow farm system. Once deep and rich in minor league talent, the farm system is only now beginning to replentish itself after the last sixteen months of ill-advised Wade moves. Howard might just be not only the final viable young piece of trade property that the team has, but even more heartening, he may finally be recognized as a viable cornerstone piece for the Phils themselves!
As mentioned at the beginning of the column, the Howard story was only chapter one of what may yet become a best selling Phillie novel. Chapter two was a seemingly inconsequential comment made by Mrs. Shonda Schilling, devoted wife to a former Phillie pitcher of some reknown, Curt Schilling. The Schillings were in town last weekend to watch Curt's latest World Series team, the Boston Red Sox, absolutely manhandle an overmatched Phillie nine.
While Curt was busy remaining in the background, almost unheard of territory for him, Mrs. Schilling was making small noises that still may ultimately have large reverberations within the walls of Phillie masterminds like Giles. It seems that the Schillings not only never sold their Philadelphia home, but plan on moving back to Philadelphia when his playing days are over. At first bite, this seems harmless enough, but what Shonda said next was certainly not a slip of the tongue mistake.
She indicated that Curt would still love to finish his career in Philadelphia and always wanted to. She indicated that he still follows the team and its fortunes and has never lost his desire to be reconnected with the city. Hmmm??? Let's study this revelation in the context of what we know about Curt. History shows that he usually requests a move A: when the last year of his contract is upon him and B: when he becomes convinced that his team will probably not offer him an extension.
Despite the seemingly endless moves from coast to coast and back again, Schilling has NEVER played out his option, he was always swapped before his final year. In this case, that would be 2006. Now, there is no reason to think that Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has been anything but thrilled with Schill since he acquired him. Afterall, the blood soaked sock will make Red Sox lore for as long as Sox fans gather around a New England pub and talk baseball stories.
Still, it seems highly unlikely that the Sox will bring Schill back after the '06 season, and Curt probably knows this. It is not beyond reason to think that should Schilling once again help lead the Sox to World Series glory that Epstein might just reward him with a return to his home..his roots, Philadelphia.
Impossible you say! As things stand now, certainly yes. Despite his often stated denials, it is highly probable that Wade was the person who kept Schilling from returning to Philadelphia last year. Schilling made it clear he wanted to come home, and GM Jerry Colangelo of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was obviously not adverse to moving him.
However, Colangelo felt Wade was never serious about reacquiring Schill and finally gave Epstein and the Red Sox permission to attempt to work out a deal. Not coincidentally, Epstein made his pitch over Thanksgiving dinner...at Schill's home, and still Schill chilled. Finally, when he realized that Wade would never bring him home, Curt agreed to move east...and to Boston.
Of course, the rest is baseball history. You see, a funny thing happens to Schilling wherever he goes. He seems to always end up pitching in World Series games. He did it in Philadelphia. Same thing happened in Arizona. And against all odds, he made it a trifecta in Boston. Coincidence? Hardly. The man, for all his foibles, can flat out pitch and would certainly bring the same zest for winning back to Citizens Bank Park.
Ah, but here is where the seemingly unrelated two stories may well become chapters one and two in the so far untitled Phillie novel. If, and this is a big if, it is true that Wade has had the power to trade Howard taken from him, it can only mean one thing...his authority is being removed. This can only mean one thing...his job is in jeopardy.
If Wade loses his job, then Hunsicker becomes the natural top candidate. He has already shown a propensity for valuing a strong farm sytem [read that to include Howard] and he has already shown an abiltiy to bring in top of the rotation starting pitchers [read that to include Curt Schilling.]
Oh, one more thing while we are reading tea leaves here. Keeping Howard would mean trading Jim Thome. This is something that Wade could never do, he has based his whole legacy as a Phillie GM on this acquisition. Unquestionably, it is Wade's shining moment as a Phillie GM. No, trading Thome would have to be entrusted to someone who had no allegiance to Thome [read Gerry Hunsicker].
Are we entirely out in left field with these seemingly unrelated events. Perhaps. Maybe, just like the hurricane that has engulfed PhillieLand, they will eventually run their course and sunshine will once again shine on all that is now Phillie red. Maybe, chapters one and two will finally lead to nothing but an unfinished book, to be placed with all the other potential best sellers that never reach the best seller list.
Still, one can't help but ponder just what mysteries are to be found in chapter three, and will they eventually lead to a finsihed product, one that every Philadelphia Phillie fan can cheer and cherish. Time will be the answer for that one...more Philadelphia futility, or better yet, a Philadelphia classic?
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast