Oh, certainly a six game trek to play American League West clubs in Oakland and Seattle would be but casual exhibitions on their way back home for games with the rival Mets and World Champion Red Sox. Most confident Phillies fans were proclaiming on radio waves that it was just a matter of time until their heroes took the NL East race by storm and saw nothing but Braves, Marlins, Mets and Nationals in the rear view mirror.
Yet a forboding feeling of fear set upon the Philadelphia populace when the Phils struggled to win one of three in Seattle and then lost the final two games in Oakland. Winning two of six against these AL West patsies was no way to win a division, but certainly things would return to normal once the team got back to the friendly and snuggly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
As this piece is being written, things not only did not get better when the Phils got home, but the freefall has caused the team to be just one tiny step removed from last place. In fact, it is the rest of the East that has the Phillies in the rear view mirror and if recent events are a forboding of whats to come, the immediate future looks bleak indeed.
Plainly put, this was not supposed to happen under the watch of Charlie Manuel, more affeectionately called "Cholly" by everyone who knows him. The team was built to win and win now, and only the mean glances of deposed manager Larry Bowa and the snide casual remarks of Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan had kept this from happening in the previous two summers.
Oh, no, the Phillie organizational masses cried out, Manuel would be different. His clubhouse is warm and fuzzy. He speaks the language of the modern ballplayer. He won't micromanage or be a ready made facial pose for the telelvison camera paparazzi. In fact, if one was to believe the Phillie public relations machine, one would have pictured the players dancing and singing kumbaya after every game, win or lose.
Those who read my column with regularity know that I had my doubts. I was far more comfortable with a Jim Leyland hiring for what seemed obvious reasons. While Manuel was friendly and jocular with the players, Leyland would have been business like and somewhat removed. While Manuel counts many of the players as his friends, Leyland would have come in completely unimpeded by past loyalties or friendships.
Ironically, Leyland is most well known for the wonderful clubhouse he creates...a clubhouse created by the joy of winning and not by loyalties or friendships. In my opinion, Leyland did not get the job becasue he was too honest in the interview for Phillie hierarchy, people who were being held accountable by the very criticisms that Leyland probably preached.
Now don't get me wrong, Leyland certainly never suggested that the team, much like Veterans Stadium, needed to be blown up. Certainly, he had a high regard for the power skills of Jim Thome and Pat Burrell and felt that in Bobby Abreu he would be inheriting another multi skilled outfielder that helped make him famous in Pittsburgh. Baseball fans still marvel at the glory years of the Pirates that featured the outfield trio of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke. Surely, Leyland felt Abreu ranked in this territory.
Yes, Leyland probably even mentioned that shortstop Jimmy Rollins was a keeper, and having a bullpen led by Billy Wagner was not a lost cause. He may have even mentioned that he thought he could win with the likes of Jon Lieber, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Cory Lidle and Brett Myers. These words no doubt brought music to the ears of General Manager Ed Wade and Company.
But one can only imagine the uneasiness Wade must have felt when Leyland also mentioned the strikeouts, and the station to station baseball that a lineup with Thome, Burrell, Bell and Lieberthal would ensure. Leyland certainly advocated keeping a multi-skilled performer like Placido Polanco over Bell, and it seems reasonable to assume that he would have presented his case for Chase Utley at second base.
In short, Leyland would have expected more changes than Wade felt comfortable making, and in his honesty Leyland was no doubt letting Wade know that he had not done enough and more would be expected if this was to work. Let's face it, Jim Leyland did not need the job. He is living comfortably with his wife and small children and has done well financially, as well a winning manager should.
Chances are, Leyland never had a prayer, and when he left the meeting half-way through to smoke a cigarette, his fate was probably already sealed. In fact, had he not returned for part two of the interview, Phillie execs might have breathed a sigh of relief. To his credit, Leyland came back and proceeded to outline his views for a brighter tomorrow.
Manuel, on the other hand, no doubt said everything they wanted to hear. Give me a Kenny Lofton in center field and another relief pitcher or two and we will be set, he might have concluded. Manuel felt comfortable with the veteran team and displayed this with his irregular use of Phillie stars of the future like Utley and pitcher Gavin Floyd.
Of course, no Phillie column would be complete without the mention of Ryan Howard, a player that Manuel himself called a potential "Willie Stargell." Yet, while Leyland would no doubt have advocated the keeping of the younger and less expensive Howard, Manuel probably went along with the company line of trading Howard for another pitcher.
Suffice it to say that all these past events have led us to where we are today in PhillieLand and with more holes showing up on the Good Ship Chollypop than can be seen at a golf course, what are we to make of the occurances. Was Billy Wagner's public outburst about a Phillie team incapaple of winning the East a muted cry in the wilderness, or a professed call for help? Even more pointed, did Wagner sense a sinking ship and ask for a life raft [read trade] by going public? Remember, Wagner has already learned that by waxing poetic about the ills of the Astros he obtained a one way ticket to Philadelphia.
Think it couldn't happen again? Stay tuned as tyhe latest rendition of Philadelphia Freedom may be the singing voice of Wagner as he again receives a ticket to Boston, or Chicago or Baltimore. Although wagner, Wade and the masses were all saying for public consumtion that all was well that ends well, past history indicates that the quickest way out of Philadelphia is by the unencumbered use of your vocal cords.
Even as Wade and Company were making light of this latest Wagner eruption, two things occured. Wagner pointedly refused to say he was misquoted, and word leaked out of a heated clubhouse meeting called by Kenny Lofton to allow players to voice their unhappiness with Wagner's comments.
By my count, this is at least meeting number three since the team began to unravel, and if a fourth one is needed, chances are that Philadelphia may well be set to see their second Declaration of Independence signed, a declaration of independence from much of what has been seemingly been built on soft sand these past three years.
As sad as it may be to admit, the future belongs to the Utleys, the Howards and the Floyds. Long live the Cole Hamels, and the Michael Bourns and the Jason Jarmillos. The sadness does not come from lifting up these names but in the eventual removal of such players as Thome, Bell, Lofton, Cormier, Wagner, Urbina and the like from the roster. Yes, Phillie phaithful, the team as presently constructed is unlikely to suddenly discover the silver slippers that will take them back home to Kansas.
Better to cut the losses and admit that what built unwisely can no longer stand. Ironically, this admission will ultimately involve the unlikely trio of Wade, Manuel and Thome. All three are wonderful and loyal Phillies, but for various reasons, all three have probably outlived their shelf life. Of course, the public outcry for the removal of Wade gets louder by the day, and the next sound you hear will either be the collective sigh of relief if Wade fails to trade Howard, or if he is replaced by GM in waiting Gerry Hunsicker.
For reasons which should be clear to all Phightin Phillie Phans, Manuel and Thome cannot be moved until or unless Wade is replaced because they are both Exhibit A and Exhibit B of the Wade legacy. He cannot in good conscious remove either one. But Hunsicker can, and probably will if he is annointed the next GM of PhillieLand.
Once firmly entrenched in his position, Hunsicker can bring in the manager of his choice, and then take on the difficult and quite possibly unpopular task of finding Thome a new home. The alternative in untenable. It makes no sense to trade a 25 year old home run machine like Howard so as to play a 35 year old player with a bad back, a bad elbow and various and sundry aches and pains, none of which are imagined by the way.
No, no, this column in no way is meant to impune Thome. The man has been a God-send to Philadelphia Phillies baseball and has been everything asked and expected. He has already earned his 85 million in good deeds and will be loved and missed long after he is gone. Stiill, Thome is best served as a DH on an American league team in the pennant hunt. It would not be the worst move to see if Cleveland, his old stomping grounds, might be willing to say you can go home again and welcome him back with open arms.
The latest glance at the standings shows the Indians are right in the playoff hunt, and might welcome the veteran presence of a Thome. Stranger homecomings than this have happened. But it likely can't happen under a Wade Watch as he seems incapable of making the move.
Finally, what becomes of Charlie Manuel, the Jolly Cholly manager in the City of Brotherly Love. On the surface, he seems as popular as ever, and there has been not a hint that he is anything but safe and secure in his position. Yet, look a little closer at the nooks and crannies of the Chollypop Ship and the cracks are everywhere. The Wagner outburst, the Lofton meeting, the ESPN interview in which respected Brave's hurler John Smoltz made a very pointed and critical comment about the dimensions of Citizens Bank Park.
Add to this the embarrassing Jason Michaels story and if the early June 12-1 homestand was the best of times, then what has transpired since has surely been the worst of times for Manuel. Worse still, many of his mangerial moves have now come in to question and even the happiest of clubhouses will not save a ship if the games people play on that ship are managed poorly.
Yes, friends, it might be wise to find your latest TV Guide and look to Turner Classic Movies for a Shirley Temple movie, possibly even the one where she croons about the wonders of The Good Ship Lollipop. This might bring a smile to your face even amongst the ruins fo what appears to be another lost Phillie season. Perhaps even Manuel would be brought to a smile lest he compare the movie to the latest escapades on The Good Ship Chollypop.
Colunist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast