The Eye Of The Tiger

The humbling game of baseball reveals a man's soul in a way that words cannot. If you look at a player with an unprejudiced eye and judge him solely by his actions, you can see a purer truth. It makes no difference how book smart a player may be, where he was born, or even how decent a person he is. Sometimes we can just tell when a player is going to do something great. Some call it the eye of the tiger. Some say he's in the zone. Whatever it is, it's plain to see to those who know how to look.

As the 2005 pennant race heats up, a few Phillies are beginning to show the eye of the tiger. They're playing with confidence and a zen focus. They are winning the game within the game, capturing a state of mind which doesn't show up in the box score. They master themselves first, before they master the game. They believe in themselves. They feel like winners. They are surprised with anything but success. And so they perform at a higher level. Sure, you can read numbers on the back of a bubblegum card, but it's more than statistics that make the great ones great. It's confidence. It's presence.

Bobby Abreu has a winner's aura about him. He glows with greatness as much as any player in recent years. He makes the game look so easy that fans often accuse him of a lack of effort, the same way Mike Schmidt used to draw boos for his lack of reckless abandon. Abreu, like Schmidt, plays smooth and easy, a style seldom appreciated in a blue-collar, lunch pail, loud-mouth town. Philly hosts many fans who would love to see Abreu smash into the outfield wall at top speed like Lenny Dykstra used to do, forgetting that Dykstra once cracked his collarbone and landed on the DL for several weeks. The injury to "Nails" cost the Phillies a handful of wins that season as they struggled to score without him. But if you ask the fans, they will swear that it was worth it, that he saved at least as many games with circus catches as he cost while on the mend.

The truth is, the Phillies can't afford to lose Abreu any more than they could afford to lose Dykstra. Though it pains us to see Abreu pull up at the warning track while running down a long drive, it would pain the team even more if he were to get hurt. Besides, Bobby is fast enough to reach the wall his way sooner than other players on a dead run. And even if a handful of doubles might have been caught if he hadn't pulled up, consider the loss that the Phillies would suffer with Abreu on the DL. Unless the Phillies are one out away from playoff elimination, no one out is worth losing Abreu to injury.

Philly radio waves may crackle with fans grumbling about Abreu's "lack of fire", but Abreu's teammates and his opponents constantly sing his praises. Abreu may not be flashy like the blazing bonfire that Lenny Dykstra was, but he burns hot like smoldering embers that never go out. His presence at the plate intimidates opposing pitchers even when they are ahead in the count. Sure, he slumped for a few weeks following the All-Star break. Sure, his swing looked out of whack after smashing home run derby records. But you know what? It's been so long since Abreu struggled at the dish that it looks strange and foreign to us, like seeing Steve Carlton in a Twins uniform. We're shocked when Abreu takes half swings and tentative pokes. That's how consistently great Abreu has been, how steady his approach, how focused and fine-tuned over so many months and years. And if the Phillies make a serious run, they will have Bobby Abreu to thank.

Kenny Lofton also has the eye of the tiger. He's had it his entire career. Negative people will point to his lower average since July. They'll cite his touchy hamstrings. They may spew forth the whole "lost-a-step" diatribe. But they're missing the point. Perhaps they don't like something about Lofton on a personal level because they can't see the truth of him as a ballplayer. Kenny Lofton is a flat-out winner on the ball field. His approach is consistently focused, his effort absolute. A great situational player, Lofton knows the game inside and out. For having lost a step he can still beat nearly every player on the field in a footrace. He'll move runners, hit sacrifice flies, bunt, steal, draw a walk. His arm is not nearly as bad as some will try to make you believe.

In warm-ups this past Sunday at Petco field in San Diego, Lofton long-tossed with reliever Geoff Geary. Standing near the Phillies bullpen on the sidelines, Geary got down in a catcher's crouch for the last throw. Lofton hit his mitt with a strike from centerfield. Geary kow-towed in appreciation like you would to a samurai. The players know. If Lofton has to dig out a ball in centerfield and make a perfect throw, you can rest assured he will. But for some reason, the Philly fans haven't warmed up to him. And they're missing one of the all-time greats playing right before their eyes.

Chase Utley also has the eye of the tiger and it will be fun to watch him down the stretch. Unlike Lofton, Utley has become an instant Philly folk hero. He's a gritty gamer, a "dirtball" RBI machine. In just his first full season, Utley has earned the meaty spots in the order, hitting third through sixth, where he's guaranteed to get more at-bats and runners aboard. Utley also would look good batting second behind Lofton if Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel wants to give Jimmy Rollins a few games off from batting leadoff against certain right-handers.

Pat Burrell has shown flashes of the eye of the tiger these past few weeks. More importantly, he's been able to bounce back from poor play more quickly than in the past. If Burrell finishes as well as he started, he'll make a strong case to be the team MVP.

Rookie Ryan Howard looks like he's having fun, also an important ingredient to winning. One thing he needs to watch as a fielder is coming off the bag early on the routine throws to first. Umpires will call the "ol' automatic" against you as the games get more meaningful. At the plate, Howard is a star in the making. If he can be a contributing part of a pennant winner, he will be that much better for the rest of his career. Will it be in Philly?

On the pitching side, a few players also have that winning look about them. Billy Wagner is as close to automatic as it gets in the ninth inning. Ugueth Urbina also has a mean stare and nasty pitches to match. Vicente Padilla turned his season around on a dime and is having one of the best stretches of any starting pitcher this year. Robinson Tejeda is relentless, regardless of the time or place. "Mad Dog" Ryan Madson also looks sharp, having yet to give up an earned run in August after eight impressive appearances.

The Phillies heard too many boos for coming home after a terrific west coast road trip. These guys have a shot to do something special and the fans have got to get behind them. Booing only makes it harder. And believe it or not, they deserve better. If winning is contagious, then several of the Phillies have already caught the bug. It's about time that the fans do too.


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