It's been a week or so since the Phillies clinched their fifth straight NL East championship. Expectations for this team—both among fans and within the team itself—are almost impossibly high: anything short of a World Series victory will be counted as a disappointment. I'm as excited as anyone, but I'm keenly aware that there is a fair chance that the Phils will not win it all. Not because they aren't capable (carrying baseball's best record for most of the season despite a number of injuries to key starters shows that they are more than capable); not because they have a major weakness for opponents to exploit (the Hunter Pence acquisition seems to have plugged their only offensive hole, and despite some recent hiccups, I feel safer handing the ball over to this bullpen than I have in a long time); not because they've celebrated their title with a six-game losing streak. It simply comes down to this: playoffs, especially in baseball, are a crapshoot.
Yes, I am aware they played baseball this year
Despite its complete absence from these pages, I have noticed and even followed (casually) the current major league baseball season. Even more than last year, I have been singularly unexcited by baseball. There are several factors—my growing disaffection with baseball's broken economics, my distance from an actual major league team, weak baseball coverage in the local paper—but I think the biggest reason is simply that my wireless coverage at home does not reliably reach the TV room. Forced to choose between wasting away my evening in front of the TV or in front of my web browser, I choose web almost every time.
Thanks to ESPN, I finally got to watch a Phillies game on Sunday. It was a very satisfying 2-1 extra-inning win over the hated Braves, featuring a great start by Brett Myers, some sparkling defensive plays, and clutch hitting for the win. In a game like that, of course, it looks like all is right with the world, but as they say, you're never as good as you look when you're winning. A look through the numbers suggests some areas of concern. Some observations (with the usual caveat that this early in the season, it is pointless trying to extrapolate trends)....
Stagnant on the Schuylkill
Baseball season is upon us, and I find that I am more than usually pessimistic about the Phillies this year. Last season began with high expectations (even from me despite reservations), but but soon sunk into disappointment. The starting pitching, which was supposed to be a strength, was a problem all season long, the team spent much of the summer in the doldrums (going 38-45 for June-August), and Atlanta blew past them to win their umpteenth-straight division title by a comfortable 10 games. Showing some signs of life at the tail-end of the season (21-9 in September and October) kept them nominally in the wildcard hunt for a while, but only barely; they still ended the season 6 games and 4 teams away from the playoffs. Not much has changed since....
On the brink of Apocalypse
No, I'm not talking about global affairs. I'm talking about baseball. ...
The Red Sox completed their improbable, historic comeback against the Yankees tonight, becoming the first team in MLB history to erase a 0-3 playoff deficit and doing so in their nemeses' own back yard. Derek Lowe pitched masterfully on only two days rest, a feat of gutsiness second only to Schilling's pitching on an ankle held together by baling twine the night before. If this doesn't dispel the Curse of the Bambino from Beantown, I don't know what will. I will leave to others the lyrical waxings that are sure to come, and suffice with a big congrats to the Red Stockings and their fans. ...
Tomorrow night, baseball will witness something that has never happened before: a seventh playoff game after one team has trailed 3-0 in the series. The Boston Red Sox, behind a gutsy pitching performance by an injured Curt Schilling, won a third straight game from the the Yankees, forcing their hated rivals into a seventh game. I find this delightful, in part because Schilling is one of my favorite players (ever since his amazing performance in the 1993 NLCS), in part because the hapless Red Sox remind me so much of my own hapless Phillies, and especially because it sets the stage for literally unprecedented event in baseball. I can't imagine what the announcers will do with themselves when they cannot fill the pregame chatter with insights like, "In Game Sevens after an extra-inning loss, the home team has won 78% of the time." ...
Just when the Phils looked like they were getting on track, they go and get swept again by the Marlins. That's three straight sweeps going back to last seasonn, and 18 of the last 20 meetings of the teams. If this keeps up much longer, the Fish may dethrone both the evil Braves and the evil Mets for my most hated team in baseball....
The Phillies looked horrendous out of the gate, going 1-6 in the first week-plus of the season. Just as a I feared, the main culprit has been an anemic offense, which scored only 16 runs in the first 7 games. Last Wednesday's rain-out in Cincinnati apparently gave them time to find their bats: they've doubled their run production in just three games (all wins). However, even with that flurry, the Phils are still second-last in the NL in runs scored (trailed only by hapless Expos) and at least half their starters have begun the season in major funks. ...
The Phillies start the season with a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh. Not ideal, but some good signs: Millwood solid (2 runs in 6 IP) and Pat Burrell gets off to a good start (3-4). 161 to go.
Jeff Angus's Management by Baseball column a few days back discusses the prevalence of "hazing" rituals in both baseball and business: "A frequent bad management trick is to unconsciously or intentionally make someone go though some hazard course that the manager had to go through when he was just a player. " Substitute the word "student" for "player" and you have a terse description of American academia, especially the system of graduate and professional education. On my various stops in the academy, I have seen both the intentional ("They came to believe that the hazing they received was an important part of their training [after all, why would they have chosen to endure it rather than leaving -- a subtle logic trap]. So they abused the agent trainees the way they had been abused.") and unintentional ("managers tend to just imitate managers they've had themselves [who, in turn, probably developed their managerial behavior portfolio the same way].") flavors of hazing. As Angus points out, such practices, besides making people needlessly miserable, tend to entrench bad practices and squander potential. It repeatedly surprises me that intelligent people, trained in critical analysis, can be so glaringly uncritical when it comes to their own institutional practices. ...
Hot Stove Synopsis
A little late for a hot stove post, since spring training is already underway, but here's a preseason look at my own beloved, bumbling Phightin' Phils. The consensus weakness of the Phils last season was a weak bullpen, and the front office struck early and often to address that need. The big news was the trade for Houston closer Billy Wagner, but they also signed two solid setup men and solidified the starting rotation as well. Jayson Stark, in calling the Phils the most improved team in the NL, sums up the changes nicely:...
My eureka came when I realized that graduate school is not a summer camp for intellectuals; it's more like boot camp for future academics. The purpose of graduate school is to train students for a profession. It's like an apprenticeship of sorts, except for at the end of it, you're not necessarily going to find a job.
It's been a slow posting week because I was watching the final games of the two League Championship Series. After back to back seventh game disappointments, I'm ready to blog again. I'll be sitting out the World Series, I think. I know I'll be disappointed by that since I don't want either team to win. It's not like there's anything especially evil about the Yanks and the Fish (I mean, at least it's not Atlanta or the -- shudder -- Mets), but when you had your heart set on the Battle of the Curses, it's hard to get excited about anything else....
The Florida Marlins completed their sweep of the Phillies, thus more or less sweeping Philadelphia out of the playoffs. It's been 10 years since Philly's last playoff appearance and more than 20 since their one and only championship. *Sigh* I suppose fans in Boston and Chicago have more to complain about (though not this year), but the Phils have to be right up there in the futility Hall of Fame. Unverified quote attributed to James Michener: "When you root for the Phillies, you acquire a sense of tragedy."