2010 American of the Year: Ron Paul

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There was no bigger development on the American political and social scene in 2010 than the emergence to power of the “Tea Party“, and that movement arguably had no bigger inspiration than Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Emerging in the wake of the disastrous Presidential election of 2008 that saw Barack Obama win the race to the Oval Office for the Democrats, the Tea Party (basing it’s moniker on the historical ‘Boston Tea Party’) espouses a firm adherence to the U.S. Constitution, drastic reductions in government spending, and reducing the national debt and budget deficit.

A longtime critic of what he perceives to be the frequent misuse of our nation’s military power by the American military-industrial complex, Paul inspired the Tea Party with his Libertarian-based run for the 2008 Republican Party nomination. Paul fell short, but his agressive criticisms of the American foreign, domestic, and monetary policies, especially in attacks on the Federal Reserve system, struck a chord with many.

For his leadership example and principled stand on the vital economic and Constitutional issues at this fragile time in American history, Ron Paul is named as this website’s annual “American of the Year”, following in the footsteps of previous honorees Glenn Beck (2009), George W. Bush (2008), Chuck Cassidy (2007), Billy Graham (2006), Bill O’Reilly (2005), and the first honoree Pat Tillman from 2004.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Paul went on to Gettysburg College and then to med school at Duke before becoming a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force during the 1960’s. On leaving the military, Paul became an obstetrician, deliving more than 4,000 babies in the ob-gyn field across two decades before turning solely to politics.

He first ran for President in the 1988 election as a member of the Libertarian Party, finishing 3rd in receiving .5% of the popular vote. More than trying to actually win, Paul wanted to begin to spread Libertarian values as an alternative to traditional Republican and Democratic Party platforms. Those values include strong emphasis on civil liberties, less government regulation, and military/diplomatic non-interventionism in a generally less powerful state.

In 1996, Paul sought a return to Congress, where he had held a seat from Texas during a portion of the 1970’s and 80’s, and won in a hard-fought campaign. After that he built his political popularity and power to the point where he was winning re-election fairly easily, now serving in the U.S. House of Representative from Texas’ 14th District.

Inspired by many of Paul’s ideals, the Tea Party candidates upset Republicans in a number of elections this year and became a viable political force with the elections of politicians such as U.S. Senators Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Mike Lee in Utah, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Dean Murray in the New York State Assembly, and Paul’s own son, Rand Paul, to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky.

While Ron Paul himself has had limited and perhaps just regional actual election success, his inspirational ideals and speeches have changed American politics and may have begun a genuine push-back by the more conservative side of American society in an age when liberalism and even socialism are rearing their ugly heads. For this inspiration and leadership, Ron Paul is the 2010 American of the Year.

NOTE: To view the write-ups for all of the ‘American of the Year’ winners simply click on to that ‘Tag’ below this article at http://www.mattveasey.com

 

A Decade of Parity and History

In western historical terms, there was no year ‘0’, so most people realize that an official decade truly runs from the year ending in ‘1’ through the 10th year.

This means that 2001 opened the true first year, and the recent 2010 season ended the final year of the first decade of the 21st century.

For all of the talk about payrolls in baseball and a fear of competitive imbalance, here is the bottom line fact as it relates to that recently completed first decade: 9 different teams won the World Series.

The only franchise that was able to win multiple World Series titles was the one that opened the decade with a supposed jinx or curse, one that hadn’t won in 90 years. That franchise was the Boston Red Sox, who won in 2004 and then again took the crown in 2007.

League or Divisional assignments didn’t matter this past decade either. The two leagues evenly split the World Series victories at 5 apiece, and teams from every division won titles. The Phillies (’08) and Marlins (’03) from the N.L. East, the Cardinals (’06) from the N.L. Central, the Diamondbacks (’01) and Giants (’10) from the N.L. West gave the National League 5 titles. In addition to Boston’s two titles, the Yankees (’09) joined from the A.L. East, the White Sox (’05) won from the A.L. Central, and the Angels (’02) from the A.L. West to give the American League 5 titles as well.

The Yankees did begin the decade by dominating their A.L. East division, winning the first 6 crowns. But Boston won in ’07, and the Tampa Bay Rays have won 2 of the last 3 seasons. In the A.L. Central, the small-market Minnesota Twins won 6 of the 10 division titles, with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox winning twice each. In the A.L. West, the Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels won 5 crowns, the Oakland A’s took 3, and both Seattle and Texas won once each. In addition, the Detroit Tigers made the playoffs as a Wildcard team during the decade.

In the N.L., the Phillies have won the last 4 straight titles, and the Atlanta Braves won the decade’s first 5 crowns. In between, the New York Mets won once.
 The N.L. Central has seen the Saint Louis Cardinals take 5 titles, with the Chicago Cubs winning 3, and with Houston and Cincinnati each winning once. The N.L. West has been the definition of parity with the LA Dodgers (3), Arizona Diamondbacks (3), San Francisco Giants (2) and San Diego Padres (2) all taking titles. Add playoff Wildcard appearances by Florida, Colorado and Milwaukee, and the N.L. has been even more up for grabs than their A.L. counterparts.

The true bottom line for building and keeping a winning, title-contending team over the past decade has not so much been the ‘bottom line’ of finance, but the always decisive bottom line of talent evaluation and sound decision-making. A strong organization with responsible ownership, the right talent evaluators, skilled coaches, and fearless management makes the final difference almost every time. That was proven over the past decade, despite the varied revenue opportunities of baseball’s franchises.

The decade brought us incredible, historical moments. In that first year, there was the response to the attacks on America on September 11th, 2001. Baseball rightly took a step back by cancelling all games for a week. It also came back at the correct time. On Monday night, September 17th, I was blessed and humbled to be in the stands at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia with my wife and a capacity crowd as the Phillies met the Atlanta Braves on that first night back. A night of flag-waving, tear-flowing patriotism that signalled we would not be beaten, would not be laid low. We would carry on, strongly and proudly. It was one of the most memorable evenings in my entire life.

The post-9/11 World Series that year featured the Yankees, carrying the prayers and hearts of not only New Yorkers but of many in America with them, against the Arizona Diamondbacks featuring the incredible 1-2 pitching punch of Curt Schilling and Randy ‘The Big Unit’ Johnson. The Yanks were ultimately beaten in one of the most memorable series of all-time when Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez blooped a series-winning, bases loaded single off legendary closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game #7.

That 2001 baseball season was also highlighted by Barry Bonds record-setting 73 homeruns. In 2002, Bonds would be around for the Fall Classic when for the 2nd straight season the World Series went the full 7-game distance. And for the 2nd consecutive season it was a franchise winning it’s first-ever championship as the Anaheim Angels, to the crack of their fans red ‘boom sticks’ and the antics of a scoreboard controlled ‘Rally Monkey’ rallied from a 3 games to 2 deficit, and a 5-0 deficit late in Game #6, to defeat Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.

Those would be the last two World Series of the decade that would go the distance. In fact, 6 of the last 7 World Series have been decided in 5 games or less. In 2003, the Florida Marlins won perhaps the decade’s least likely title, upsetting the Yankees in 6 games behind the stellar pitching of young ace Josh Beckett.

The 2004 season provided true baseball history. First came the ALCS, where the Yankees bolted ahead of the Red Sox to a 3 games to none lead. The Bosox then began the greatest comeback in MLB history, taking a pair of extra-innings contests to get back into the series.

In Game #6, Curt Schilling miraculously took the mound, overcoming a serious ankle injury. He did so with guts, gumption, and some help from the medical staff in what would become known in baseball lore as the now-legendary “Bloody Sock” game (pictured.)

Schilling pitched them to the series tie, and the Bosox throttled the Yanks in the 7th game, completing baseball’s first-ever and still only rally from an 0-3 series deficit. The Sox went on to sweep the World Series and put to rest the ghost of the 9-decades old “Curse of the Bambino“.

In 2005 another long-running streak of futility came to an end as the Chicago White Sox would win their first World Series crown in a half-century. Led by colorful manager Ozzie Guillen, the Chisox swept the Houston Astros for the title. The Astros were participating in the first-ever World Series for the franchise. It remains their only appearance.

As of the end of the decade, neither the Seattle Mariners or Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) franchises have ever appeared in the World Series. In addition to Houston, Seattle and Washington, the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have yet to win a World Series.

The Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, led by Albert Pujols, who was perhaps the decade’s greatest individual player. Pujols was the NL’s Rookie of the Year in 2001 as the decade began. He was an All-Star every year except 2002. He was a 3-time NL MVP, 6-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award, 2-time Gold Glove Award winner, and won homerun, batting and rbi titles during the decade. He slugged 408 homeruns, ripped 1,900 total hits, and batted a lofty .331 over the totality of the decade. By decade’s end, he would be selected by both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News as the sport’s ‘Player of the Decade’ honoree.

After the Red Sox were led by manager Terry Francona to their 2nd World Series crown of the decade in 2007, it was Francona’s old team, the Philadelphia Phillies, who would put an entire city’s futility to an end in the 2008 World Series. With the weight of a quarter-century of pro sports teams not winning a league championship in any major sport, by far the longest such streak of futility in the nation, the Phillies used a homegrown core of players in Jimmy ‘JRoll’ Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Madson, and NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels to end the streak.

The Phillies had a 3 games to 1 lead on the young and talented Tampa Bay Rays heading into Game #5 at Citizens Bank Park. The game began under a threat of rain, and that threat turned to reality as the game got underway. By the middle innings the night had deteriorated into monsoon-like conditions. With the two teams tied and the field reduced to water and mud piles, the umpires finally called the proceedings off and delayed the game.

What then ensued was a 48-hour period where baseball waited out the suddenly rainy period that had deluged the Philly area. Finally, after that 2-day delay, the game was resumed as the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the 6th with the score tied at 1-1. The Phils retook the lead, Tampa tied it again, the Phils went ahead yet again and took a 3-2 lead into the top of the 9th. When Brad Lidge finally slipped a changeup past Tampa Bay’s Eric Hinske and into Ruiz’ glove for a final strike, the Phils closer sunk to his knees as legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas exulted: “The Philadelphia Phillies are 2010 world champions of baseball!”

The Phillies would return to the World Series the following year led by mostly the same group, but bolstered by a pair of big-game pitching pickups in Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. But there they met a formidable New York Yankees club that had been bolstered themselves by major free agent acquisitions Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia. Together with multi-talented and controversial 3rd baseman Alex ‘ARod’ Rodriguez, perhaps the decades 2nd greatest player behind only Albert Pujols, and their own homegrown core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano and Andy Pettitte, the Yanks took down the Phils in six tough games.

As the decade has come to a close over the past year, one thing that has stood out to many has been a clear changing of the guard. The decade began with players like Ken Griffey Jr., Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar and others dominating play. But most of those players were now either gone or on their way out.

The new guard of players making their debuts at the Major League level over the past few seasons is perhaps defined and highlighted right now by the smallish, mop-haired, snaggle-toothed pitcher with the funky delivery who starts every 5th game for the San Francisco Giants.

Righthander Tim ‘the Freak’ Lincecum won the National League Cy Young Award as the league’s top pitcher in each of his first two seasons of 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he would take it a step further, leading his Giants to their first World Series championship in more than a half-century, the first ever in the ‘City by the Bay’ since the club moved from New York in the 1950’s.

The past decade has brought us through many big stories and emotional moments. From New York and 9/11, to the controversy of Barry Bonds record-setting achievements. From the Congressional hearings on substance abuse in baseball at mid-decade, to a pair of World Baseball Classic tournaments that brought the best players from all over the planet together under the banners and for the glory of their individual nations, the game has rolled on and grown stronger. It is perhaps fitting that one of the decade’s greatest stories, and greatest players, led his nation to victories in both of those WBC tournaments as Ichiro Suzuki and Japan took home both titles.

Ichiro was just one of the big stars of the decade that included the previously mentioned greatness of Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. There were so many others at the plate besides those already mentioned, from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in Boston to the ‘M & M Boys”, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, in Minnesota. The bats of Vlad Guerrero, Jeff Kent, Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, and others boomed.

Besides the previously noted, there were the arms of Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Jamey Moyer and Trevor Hoffman befuddling and blowing away the batters.

The beginning of the next decade looms off in the distance of the ending of the long winter ahead. Where will it lead us? Will phenoms like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper help Washington to finally get to the World Series at some point in the next ten years? Can the Mariners finally get there?

What kinds of numbers will Albert Pujols end up with? Will A-Rod break Bonds all-time homerun record, and will it be considered as tainted as Bonds own breaking of Hank Aaron’s career record was by many? Will Bonds himself reach the Hall of Fame? All of these, and so many others that we can’t now even imagine, await us in baseball’s next decade.

Thankful For a Game?

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in America, the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a day where we give thanks to our God and spend time with the family and friends with whom he has blessed our lives.
The day usually includes a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, vegetables, pies, and other foods and treats. It also includes watching pro football games on TV, and sometimes watching high school rivalry games in person.
Something that we don’t usually think about or associate with on Thanksgiving Day is the sport of baseball. But I am going to take a little time to speak about the game on this day for one important reason.

This is supposed to be a day on which we recognize and express our gratitude for the people and things that we love, and in my life there have been few things outside of my family that I have loved more than the sport that I like to call “The Greatest Game That God Ever Invented.”

My love of the game encompasses every way that it can be enjoyed, from playing to coaching to spectating to fantasy. My involvement in the game pretty much began with the opening of Veteran’s Stadium in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just 9 years old. Until that point the only real sports events that I had been exposed to were the Big Five basketball games that I remember my dad watching on television.
In the spring of 1971, ‘The Vet’ opened it’s gates at Broad and Pattison, and my dad took my brother Mike and I to the ‘Opening Day’ festivities. It was an event prior to the first game, where fans could get in and walk around the sparkling new facility.

All of the baseball specific features were on display, from the baseline picnic areas, to the booming cannon of Phil & Phyllis that would follow each Phillies’ home run, to the colorful Dancing Waters fountain in center field.

I was hooked by the place, and the team and game would soon follow.

The Phillies in those early 70’s days were awful. The first three seasons at The Vet, the first three that I followed, saw the team finish in 6th and last place in the National League East Division.

But my friends and I loved heading down to the ballpark where we could sit in the 700 level for just .50 cents. Because the team was so bad, there were many nights that we were able to move down to the lower levels in the later innings to seats vacated by season ticket holders.

We would go to those games in groups, often with a dozen or more kids together at one time. Sometimes we took the 79 bus on Snyder Avenue up to the Broad Street Subway, and then south to the Pattison Avenue stop at the stadium.

Most times we just walked, since it was just a few miles and our legs, hearts and minds were all still young. The walk itself was often a part of the adventure and experience of having a good time hanging together.

My favorite players in that first 1971 season were slick-fielding, scrappy 2nd-year shortstop Larry Bowa, colorful rookie center fielder Willie Montanez, and a powerful rookie outfielder named Greg ‘the Bull’ Luzinski.

In 1972, two new players who would eventually change everything would join the team. Pitcher Steve Carlton came in a somewhat controversial trade for talented and popular pitcher Rick Wise, who had tossed a no-hitter the previous year. And a highly touted prospect third baseman named Mike Schmidt would make his debut late in the season.

On the fields, playgrounds and schoolyards of my Two Street neighborhood in South Philly, I played the game as much as I could. Although I tried out and played a couple of seasons in organized leagues at the Murphy Rec Center at 4th and Shunk and with our local EOM sports organization, it was mostly in loosely organized neighborhood teams where I got my playing experience.
My friends and I played our version of stick ball in the schoolyard at Sharswood Public School. We called the game ‘long ball’, a game where the defense was setup the same as a baseball team, but where offensively you hit a rubber ‘pimple ball’ that was pitched to you underhanded on one bounce.

You did your hitting with a stick, usually fashioned from a broom  or mop handle. Some kids came up with things over the years that looked like war clubs, some made of shovel handles, some the origins of which were purely speculative.

We also had a game called ‘fast ball’ that was played with the same stick and pimple ball used in ‘long ball’, but in which the pitches were delivered overhand in the usual baseball pitching style. The batter stood at a ‘strike zone’ that was usually formed by a box drawn on a schoolyard wall, or that was formed by the window covering on the lower levels of the school building. The pitcher would deliver fastballs, curves, sliders and anything else he could come up with to fool the hitter.
A traditional South Philly game was ‘half ball’ in which you would take the standard rubber pimple ball and literally slice it in half. The two halves then each became a ‘halfball’, with the pitches delivered underhanded. The batters would usually face a large wall or structure, a certain level of which was designated as a home run.

We played these games every single summer from around age 9 or 10 until they disappeared from our radar screen when we reached around age 14.

During those early to mid-70’s days of my developing love for the game, baseball was featured on network television in a ‘Game of the Week’ format. We also got to watch many of the Phillies road games on a local ‘UHF’ channel 17, and also the Major League Baseball playoff and World Series games.
My earliest memory of watching baseball on television involves following the 1972 NLCS where the Cincinnati Reds were facing off against the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Reds were in the early years of what would become known as the legendary ‘Big Red Machine” and had players such as Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. The Pirates showcased Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
In the series, the Pirates took two out of the first three games in the best-of-five series. The Reds stayed alive and tied the series up with big 7-1 romp in the fourth game, sending the series to an ultimate, dramatic fifth and deciding game.

In that fifth game, the Pirates took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning. The Reds rallied to tie on a dramatic home run by Bench. Cincinnati then put two more runners on base, and the Pirates brought in Bob Moose, one of their starters. Moose got two outs, one of them moving George Foster to 3rd base. Then it all ended suddenly when Moose threw a wild pitch, enabling Foster to score the game and series-winning run.

No one knew it at the time, but it would be the final game in the storied Hall of Fame career of the legendary Clemente. He would be tragically killed in an off-season plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to help victims of an earthquake. Both the Pirates and the Reds would remain contenders throughout the decade, and would both become rivals to the Phillies as our home team finally became a contender at mid-decade.
The Phillies fortunes began to change by 1974, when they finished at 80-82 and were a much more competitive club. By 1975, the team was a winner, and seriously challenged for the NL East title before falling short. That team was inspired by second baseman Dave Cash, who had come over from the Pirates and whose slogan “Yes We Can!” inspired the ball club and was the rallying point for the team’s advertising campaign.
The Phillies began to reap the benefits of the development of their own core of young players in Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, catcher Bob Boone, and pitchers like Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Randy Lerch. Carlton developed from a good pitcher into a great Cy Young Award winner. And management made great trades to bring in Gary Maddox, Bake McBride and Tug McGraw among others. The stage was set for winning the NL East in four of five seasons from 1976 through 1980.
For the 1979 season, the team was able to make perhaps the biggest free agent signing in it’s history when Reds spark plug Pete Rose was signed. That 1979 club ultimately fell apart down the stretch due to injuries and complacency, but in 1980 it all came together.

The Phillies won the World Series for the first time in the 97 year history of the franchise in 1980. I got to attend Game #2 of that Fall Classic, a victory over the Kansas City Royals and future Hall of Famer George Brett. When the Phillies finally clinched the crown with a win in Game Six, my friends and I were right there in the middle of all the celebrations.

By the mid-1980’s, I had been employed at First Pennsylvania Bank for a few years, and was a young father of two daughters. I had also been involved with the game by playing in a men’s softball league, and had gotten involved with a team which we eventually came to call the “Brewers”, mostly after our love of having a few cold adult beverages following each game.
The Brewers, their wives, girlfriends, and families became my 2nd family over the years, the best friends of my adult life. We would build the team into a perennial winner, and would take home league championships in 1985, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92 and finally in 1994.

I had the privilege of managing the ’89, ’91 and ’94 Brewers champions. I also had my personal greatest moment as a ballplayer with the team when, on August 1st, 1991 in the final game of a championship series sweep, I homered over the fence at Archbishop Ryan high school’s field.

Eventually, the playing career would give way to a combination of age and adult responsibilities. But the game never left me, as I continued to both follow the Phillies and MLB, both in person and on TV. I also got involved in the new hobby of ‘fantasy baseball’, in which you ‘own’ certain pro players and where your fantasy team success is based on their real-world performances.
In 1993, the Phillies would enjoy a rarity in Major League Baseball, a ‘worst-to-first’ season. The franchise had basically collapsed following the greatness of the late 70’s and early 80’s. That 1993 season would, in fact, be a rare contending season for the team over a two decade period.

But those 1993 Phillies would prove to be the most fun ball club that I ever watched. Players such as John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams and a cast of characters along with them moved to first place early, stayed there all year, and then upset the Braves in the NLCS.

They took the defending champion Blue Jays all the way to the 6th game of the World Series, where Joe Carter beat Mitch in one of baseball’s greatest finishes. Despite the finish for the Phillies, the season will never be forgotten by those of us who lived through it and enjoyed every inning.

In the summer of 1998, I formed the ‘Whitey Fantasy Baseball League’ with a number of other lovers of the game from all around the country. It is a ‘keeper’ league, where you get to keep and maintain control over your players unless or until you trade them away or release them. We have both Major League players and a full minor league/prospect/draft system now. I won the championship in this league with my Philadelphia Athletics teams in both 2002 and 2008.
Of course, that 2008 baseball season was important to all Philadelphia baseball fans, not just to my fantasy title-winning self. The Phillies, after floundering for most of the past two decades, had been building a winner over the previous few seasons.

In 2008, it finally all came together. The team won the World Series led by players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. They went back to the Series in 2009, and nearly made it three straight appearances this past season.

My love for the game remains strong as I turn 49 years old. I haven’t stepped into a batters box since early in the summer of 1999, but the game still courses through my veins.

This past season, my wife and I purchased our first-ever season ticket package for the Phillies, enjoying many Sunday games together at the place we consider our 2nd home, one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball, Citizens Bank Park.

Just last month, we stood in the stands and roared with the crowd as Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS. It was the only no-hitter and one of the greatest pro baseball moments that I ever experienced in person.

This Thanksgiving Day, among all the other things for which I am thankful, I include this game that has meant so much to my life’s enjoyment.

From the schoolyard ball of South Philly to the family of the Brewers softball team to the great Major League moments: Carlton Fisk waving a ball fair, a baseball rolling between Bill Buckner’s legs, Brad Lidge dropping to his knees in joy, baseball has given me memories and experiences that have enriched my life in so many ways.

Finally, thank you, God, for allowing me to participate and enjoy your greatest game in such an intimate way. And almost as much as spending eternity in your loving presence and with my family and friends.

And I look forward to playing the game, once again in my youth, in your Heaven. To running the bases, sliding into the bags, diving for the balls, gunning the throws, smelling the freshly mowed grass, feeling the crack of the ball against the bat, hearing the cheers, feeling the embrace of teammates.

For this great game, I am eternally thankful. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Hot Corner Gold Glover

Scott Rolen is the greatest defensive 3rd baseman that I have ever seen in my lifetime.

For any real fan of baseball, and especially for those who both know me and my passion for what I regularly call “The Greatest Game That God Ever Invented“, you’ll know that is no small statement for me to make.

It is also a fairly controversial statement. After all, this is the town where Phillies legendary 3rd baseman and Baseball Hall of Famer Michael Jack Schmidt played for all of his nearly 18 big league seasons, and I got to see him in every one of those seasons.

It is also controversial because my lifetime takes in the majority of the career of another Baseball Hall of Famer, the legendary Baltimore Orioles 3rd sacker Brooks Robinson. During their careers, Schmitty was a 10-time Gold Glover at 3rd base, including 9 in a row from 1976-1984 and Brooks won the Gold Glove a record 16 times at the hot corner, all consecutively from 1960-1975.

In fairness, it’s difficult for me to comment on any first-hand witnessing of Robinson’s greatness. I didn’t really begin following baseball until the 1970 season when I was 8 years old and Brooks was playing at age 33 in his 15th MLB season. Even after that, in those pre-cable TV days the only time I got to see him was on the occasional Game of the Week or other national TV broadcast such as the All-Star Game or the playoffs. I will toss in this caveat, that my pick Rolen has a ways to go to match the number of Gold Gloves won by Brooks Robinson.

I did get to watch Mike Schmidt’s entire career here in Philly. I was 10 years old when he broke in for a September 1972 call-up, and 27 years old when he retired early in the 1989 season. I probably saw Schmitty play in more than a hundred games at Veteran’s Stadium over the years, and in hundreds more on television. He was incredible at the hot corner, a human vacuum cleaner with a cannon for an arm, tremendous instincts, and uncommon athleticism. He could charge a slow roller and make the bare-handed pickup and throw in one motion play as well as anyone who ever played the game.

My opinion on Rolen is no knock on Schmitty, who in my books is simply edged out just slightly, and who comes in 2nd out of the hundreds that I have seen play 3rd base.
 Schmidt was certainly a stronger offensive player, and was just as good a baserunner. He is the greatest all-around 3rd baseman that I ever saw play, and in fact is the greatest ballplayer to ever don a Phillies uniform, period.

I also got to see a number of other great 3rd baseman over the years. Some of those who stand out for their glove work include Doug Rader, Craig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Robin Ventura, and Terry Pendleton. And in today’s game, both Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay and Ryan Zimmerman of Washington continue the baseball tradition of great athletes at the hot corner making unbelievable plays. Given health, those last two guys will have a bunch of Gold Gloves to their credit before their careers are finished a decade or more from now.

Zimmerman won his first of what many assumed would be a long line of consecutive National League Gold Glove Award honors following the 2009 season. But he was at least temporarily slowed down when the 2010 recipients were announced this past week. When the 2010 NL Gold Glove Award winners were announced, it was Scott Rolen who was honored with his 8th career award.

Some Phillies fans will never, ever give Rolen his due. That is somewhat understandable if you know the dynamics of the player’s career and his relationship with the town’s passionate fans. Scott Rolen broke in with the Phils at the tail end of the 1996 season. In 1997 he was the NL Rookie of the Year, but played for a club that won just 68 games, finished 33 games out of first place, and drew just 1.4 million fans, the lowest franchise attendance total since 1973.

Rolen was an undeniable talent at that point. The 6’4, 240-lb Midwest kid from Indiana played with passion and athleticism. His bat boomed with the promise of a perennial 30-homerun season hitter. He ran the bases as well as any player in the big leagues. And man, could he play defense. He more overpowered the position than played with grace and fluidity. He attacked balls, dove for them, charged them, overwhelmed them. He was the future in Philly, and in his 2nd full season of 1998 won the first of his Gold Glove Award honors.

The problem, however, was that Rolen was mostly alone in Philadelphia as a winner. He and pitcher Curt Schilling often appeared to be the only two players who played with both obvious passion for the game combined with excellence on the diamond. Many fans, including myself, embraced them as the two beacons of light on the team, the two biggest reasons to go out to the ballpark and spend your good money on the franchise in those days.

Rolen’s first break-in season of 1996 through the 2000 season resulted in five years in which the club finished a combined 106 games below the .500 mark, and the frustration began to grow on the young 3rd sacker. He added another Gold Glove in 2000, but had watched that summer as the team traded away it’s lone other All-Star caliber player and it’s only legitimate starting pitcher when Schilling was dealt to Arizona. Rolen, and the club’s increasingly disgruntled fan base, began to question management and ownership’s commitment to fielding a winning ballclub.

Then in 2001, things finally looked like they might be changing. The 2001 Phillies led by Rolen, rightfielder Bobby Abreu, and a speedy young shortstop named Jimmy Rollins battled for the NL East title right down to the final weeks of the season. On the emotional evening of Monday, September 17th, Rolen homered twice and led the Phillies to victory in a first-place showdown with the Atlanta Braves in front of a frenzied full house at The Vet that included my wife and I in attendance on baseball’s first night back following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The club ultimately fell short, but won 86 games, and Rolen was rewarded with his 3rd career Gold Glove.

That 2001 highlight season in Philadelphia would prove to be the final one for the 3rd baseman. Despite the team showing it could begin to move forward and compete on the field, the front office continued to wring it’s hands, doing nothing to add to the talent base. Schilling had won a World Series in 2001 with the Diamondbacks, and Rolen saw nothing happening in Philly that pointed towards the same happening here any time soon. His displeasure towards ownership and management got more and more vocal, and he demanded a trade, preferably to a franchise market closer to his Midwestern roots.

Just before the 2002 trade deadline, the Phillies finally cut their ties, trading Rolen to the Saint Louis Cardinals for three players, including Placido Polanco. The Cardinals loved Rolen, and he loved them. He signed an 8-year, $90 million contract at the end of 2002 season which saw him selected to his first All-Star team, win his first Silver Slugger as the best offensive 3rd baseman in the game, and finally his 4th Gold Glove Award. He won All-Star and Gold Glove honors in both 2005 and 2006 as well, and finally reached the ultimate when the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series.

Many here in Philly will always hold a grudge against Rolen for wanting out of town, and for going public with that sentiment. Turn your back on us, and many of us will not only hope you get your wish to leave, but also will happily drive you out or pay your way out, and will never let you forget that you asked to leave for the rest of your career or life. The usual media suspects in town did a nice job at the time, and some have continued the idea, of portraying Rolen as a crybaby quitter. To me, Rolen was exactly what Schilling was – a winner stuck in a loser organization that made no commitment to win for years, and that was showing no signs of doing it any time in the near future. But instead of rallying around their stars, many of the fans and in the media turned on them in spite of the team’s apparent commitment to losing.

So Rolen and Schilling both moved along with their All-Star careers and won their World Series away from Philadelphia. For Rolen, the 2007 season was a lost one as injury woes particularly to his shoulder wrecked his year from the outset. Manager Tony LaRussa began to question Rolen’s commitment to the game, questioning the repeated injury problems. Finally in January of 2008, Rolen was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. He spent another mostly injury-marred season and a half in Toronto, never able to return to more than flashes of his early career brilliance. Finally at the trade deadline in 2009, Rolen was dealt to Cincinnati.

It was a curious move at the time, with many wondering why the young, rebuilding Reds would take on a player apparently on the decline at the trade deadline during a year in which they were not in contention. But Reds management believed that they had an up-and-coming team, believed in Rolen’s talent and quiet leadership-by-example approach, and saw a perfect fit. They were rewarded with a tremendous comeback 2010 season in which a rejuvenated Scott Rolen helped lead the Reds back into the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, and for which he was rewarded with that 8th Gold Glove.

For any Phils fan with an honest memory and who saw Scott Rolen play during those first five years of his career here in Philadelphia, and who is a baseball fan able to appreciate what he did the next few years at Saint Louis, and who got to enjoy this past comeback season with the Reds, you simply must acknowledge what the man is between the lines of a baseball diamond.

Many can successfully argue the cases for Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson being better defensive 3rd basemen than Scott Rolen. They will point to more Gold Glove Award honors and will fall back on Hall of Fame careers for those players. I won’t spend a lot of time arguing, because I truly appreciate those two men and their place in the game, and I honestly value their greatness, including as defensive players at 3rd base.

But again, I have watched this game now for over four decades. I have seen great ones come and go. I have seen good ones shoot onto the scene and have a great season or two or three. I have seen tremendous offensive players have mediocre defensive seasons and still be rewarded with Gold Glove honors based more on offensive prowess or past reputations. For me, Scott Rolen is the best glove, arm, and athlete that I have ever seen at the hot corner in all my years of enjoying this great game, and I will take that opinion to my grave.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies thrilled local sports fans with the city’s first major sports championship in a quarter century. For that they were embraced and showered with love, and as Fred Shero once famously said of the 1970’s-era champion Flyers, they will “walk together forever.”
Eventually there will be reunions, old-timer’s games if you will, alumni homerun derby nights at the ballpark. These heroes, some of whom are now temporarily booed because they moved on to opposition teams, will all be cheered again at the ballpark. 2008 will trump anything and everything else in the long run.
Nothing lasts forever, particularly the roster of a major sports team since the free agency era began, and especially in the 21st century when the money involved has become so huge. Keeping the core of a championship team intact for more than 3-4 years is nearly impossible. What Ruben Amaro has done at the helm of the Phillies has been magnificent, but the challenge becomes more and more difficult as each year passes, and as each new champion from 2008 gets a year further along in their contract and a year older in age.
The first major goodbye came almost immediately after the magic of 2008, while some loose confetti still blew down Broad Street and before championship rings had even been dispersed. Pat ‘the Bat’ Burrell, the slugging leftfielder who had bashed homeruns for 9 seasons at Veteran’s Stadium and Citizens Bank Park and who had ridden in the honor position at the very front of the team title parade caravan, left via free agency for World Series opponent Tampa Bay.
Another year passed, the Phillies returned to the World Series and this time lost to the New York Yankees, and following the 2009 season another longtime franchise hero left when pitcher Brett Myers signed as a free agent with Houston. Myers had pitched 7 1/2 seasons for the Phillies, including a year when he saved their skins by moving successfully into the closer’s role.
Some of the key role players for that 2008 title team had moved along as well. Outfielder Geoff Jenkins, whose booming double to centerfield had led-off the 2nd-half portion of the now legendary rain delayed Series clincher with Tampa, was released in spring of ’09. Infielder Eric Bruntlett, who seemed to always be in the middle when a big run was scored in the Series, and who turned an unassisted triple play in 2009, was released following that season.
Matt Stairs, whose dramatic 8th inning homerun in the NLCS will remain legendary in team annals well into the future, and whose early 2009 homerun was the last ever called by legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas, left as a free agent. Pedro Feliz brought slick-fielding excellence to the hot corner, albeit with the price of a mostly weak bat, and also knocked in the Series winning run, and then took his airtight defense off to free agency following ’09.
Now it is continuing, that process of saying goodbye to 2008 heroes. Lefty reliever J.C. Romero, such a key part of the bullpen for the better part of four seasons and particularly in ’08, was not re-signed this off-season. Veteran hometown hero and ageless wonder Jamie Moyer is expected to either retire or move along as his contract has expired.
As varied as their individual departure stories have been, the cold, hard fact of the matter is that none of them, with the possible and arguable exception of Myers, were key losses on the field, none of them were really wanted any longer by the organization, and with the likely exception of Moyer, none has been especially missed by the fans.
That is all likely about to change. Rightfielder Jayson Werth is a free agent, and is widely considered as one of the top three names available this winter in all of baseball. Along with outfielder Carl Crawford and pitcher Cliff Lee, the bearded one is about to get rich beyond his wildest dreams. These opportunities come along seldom in a player’s career, and particularly for Werth, who had so much of his early career derailed by injuries, this is his one shot at the big money.
Werth took the bold step during the 2010 season of hiring super agent Scott Boras to represent him in his coming contract negotiations. His services as a player would be welcomed by any organization in baseball, but will only be affordable to a handful. The likely landing places for the strong, speedy, clutch-hitting, colorful talent include the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers, the Los Angeles Angels, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox.
These are only the most likely based on their ability to pay him the anticipated big bucks that Boras is currently demanding. Boras has begun his public posturing by putting out the 7-year, $120 million dollar deal signed by Matt Holliday with Saint Louis last off-season as the Werth benchmark. Some in baseball speculate that he may have to settle for something more like the 4-year, $66 million dollar deal signed by Jason Bay with the New York Mets. Splitting the difference means that you are likely looking at something like a 5-6 year deal worth approximately $90-100 million.
There are other teams who may be able to pay that type of contract. Both the Beltway franchises of Washington and Baltimore come to mind. The Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians should have money to spend. Perhaps the big-market Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs or White Sox could get involved. And there is always the nightmare scenario of the rival Atlanta Braves or New York Mets getting involved.
The likelihood is that Werth will play only for a team that he believes can contend for a World Series title. Anyone who has watched him play with fire and passion here in the post-season for the past four seasons in Philly knows that he will not be satisfied to collect a huge paycheck for an also-ran ball team. And the fact is, he will not have to do so. His suitors will include some of the most serious contenders.
This all brings us back around to one serious contender who also will have some money to spend this off-season. That team is his now former team, the hometown Philadelphia Phillies. Will Amaro and the Phillies ownership be willing to go that many years at that dollar amount to bring one of it’s most popular core players back into the fold? Should they even think about it? Would the money be better spent elsewhere, such as the bullpen and bench, allowing young Domonic Brown the playing time opportunity?
Ruben Amaro has claimed that the team has enough money to bring Werth back, but will they? The odds seem to be leaning towards yet another goodbye for a 2008 Phillies hero, a process that is inevitable. It did not end with Burrell, or Myers, or Romero, and it will not end with Moyer or Werth. Jimmy Rollins, the leader of this entire era of Phillies players, will see his contract expire a year from now if no extension is forthcoming.
Like Schmidt and Carlton, Bowa and Boone, Luzinski and McGraw, Daulton and Dykstra, Kruk and Williams, Rolen and Schilling, and hundreds more before them, every one of the 2008 Phillies will be moving along eventually, either into free agency, or retirement, or via trade to another chapter in their career. It will happen with Charlie Manuel, with Chase, with Lidge, with Chooch, with the Flyin Hawaiian, even eventually with Hamels and Howard. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but we will always, always have 2008 together.