The Red Devil and The Chief

Fair warning: I’ve held back talking about the Phillies for a while, and now the floodgates are opening. This post has some length to it. The Phanatic is there on the right because at least he hasn’t gone and messed everything up this season.

The Philadelphia Phillies are, so far this year, bad. Really bad. .250 winning percentage bad. They’ve been mostly unlucky, offensively, as they’re getting a ton of baserunners, but barely scoring any runs. Defensively, no one was expecting them to be great, with subpar defensive players at first base, third base, left field, and catcher, not to mention a second basemen who’s only about league average. The starting rotation has been both hurt, and inconsistent. Big offseason acquisition Freddy Garcia made his first start of the season last night, and pitched predictably for a good pitcher coming off an injury. He had some control problems, and allowed more baserunners than you’d like to see. He gave up a 2-run homer, but that’s to be expected. On the upside, he appears completely healthy, and his “stuff” was good, as he struck out 6 batters in only 4 2/3. Supposed ace, Brett Myers, has struggled so far this year. After pitching splendidly on opening day, Myers has produced two absolute stinkers. Young stud Cole Hamels has pitched well so far this year. Really well, in fact. Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton both have a good start and a lousy one. But I’m not worried about the starting rotation.

The bullpen, meanwhile, has been terrible. Really, truly, abysmal. I’m not going to bother to cite any statistics, but, rest assured, as a die hard Phils fan, I start to shake as soon as I see manager Charlie Manuel coming out of the dugout to relieve his tired starter of the ball. Not that it’s Charlie’s fault. What’s he supposed to do? Keep his pitchers in their for complete games? 150 pitches, or when your arm falls off, anything to win the game?

A lot–in fact, the considerable and certainly vocal majority–think Charlie Manuel is an awful manager, and should be fired. Local sportstalk 610 WIP radio host, antagonist, and general horse’s ass Howard Eskin is certainly among the most vocal Manuel critics. And last night, Manuel, it would seem, had enough.

I’m not even sure where to start with “The Chief”, Howard Eskin. Is he even known outside the Philadelphia area? He’s been part of the Philadelphia sports landscape for decades, spending the past 15 years or so sniping discriminately at various players, coaches, and front office personnel for the Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, and Phils. He doesn’t discriminate, seemingly, on any sort of outward basis, although he does have some kind of misogynistic and racist attitude with his callers. He essentially decides that he likes or dislikes someone, and sticks to it. If he likes them, they walk on water. If he dislikes them, they can do nothing right. As for the people who call into his show–well, if you disagree with him, it’s going to be a short phonecall.

Needless to say, Eskin decided a long while ago that he hated Manuel, and has been pushing, relentlessly, for his firing since the moment Manuel was hired. Eskin, like most fools who talk about coaches, blames the manager for the teams losses, and gives credit to the team for their wins. After last night’s 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the Goddamned Mets, Eskin showed up for Manuel’s postgame press conference. I watch a lot of these press conferences, and Manuel, who’s normally a friendly and engaging man, has seemed genuinely upset so far this season. He certainly has reason to be. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying themselves as the skipper for a 3-9 team. Anyway, at the press conference, Eskin did what Eskin does, and starting asking Manuel pointed, antagonistic questions. We’ll quote Phillies beat writer Ken Mandel’s piece on the incident:

The postgame press conference ended abruptly when WIP radio personality and Manuel antagonist Howard Eskin baited the manager by suggesting he shed his perceived nice-guy image and Norman Vincent Peale approach to winning (“The Power of Positive Thinking”) — and “go off on somebody.”

Good-naturedly, Manuel said, “There are times and ways to do it. For me to just go in there and throw a fit — I can go in there and tear the whole [expletive] locker room up. I can come in here and throw over every chair. I don’t see where that’s going to do any good.”

Eskin persisted.

“Don’t you think it creates some urgency for the players?” he said. “Because they hardly ever see you angry.”

“I think they see me angry more than you think they do,” Manuel said. “I think you probably don’t see me angry. I can show you [that] I can get angry. Why don’t you drop by my office? I’ll be waiting on you. I’ll walk down there right now.”

When Eskin joked that he’d be heading to the manager’s office, Manuel repeated that he’d be waiting. Minutes later, Eskin was in Manuel’s office and the manager could be heard screaming from behind a closed door. Ten minutes later, while reporters were questioning starter Freddy Garcia, Manuel walked into the clubhouse and continued.

Told to “grow up” by Eskin, Manuel shot back with an unprintable response. He was escorted to the back by catching instructor Mick Billmeyer and media relations manager Greg Casterioto, while hitting coach Milt Thompson took Eskin out the front door. Some players, including Shane Victorino, Garcia, Jon Lieber and Jayson Werth, witnessed the exchange.

That “unprintable response”, grifted from Wikipedia, was, “I been growed up. I grew up a long fucking time ago, you asshole.”

Now, there’s never any benefit to arguing with Howard Eskin. He spins everything to conform to his position, and apparently he’s already gotten back on the air to disparage Manuel even further. Trying to argue with Eskin is essentially equivalent to writing hate mail to Gregg Doyel. Even if there’s a valid argument for either side, Eskin will just resort to calling you “nitwit” or “moron”, and, on the radio, just hang up. I don’t know why Manuel let Eskin under his skin, and as much as I’d love to see The Red Devil tune-up The Chief, I suspect this isn’t helping Manuel to retain his job.

Let’s first start with Eskin’s position, and then we’ll move on to Charlie’s work. Eskin’s position is that Manuel is (A) an idiot and (B) too “nice” and not nasty enough. Since both of these have a certain degree of subjectivity (at least, I’m not aware of any decent method of quantifying Intelligence or Nastiness. IQ doesn’t seem particularly reliable to me, at least), you’ll forgive me for only citing stories to refute them.

As an idiot: I only read 3 of the Phils beat writers with any regularity. Two are Todd Zolecki for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Ken Mandel for Phillies.com. I don’t actually know the name of the third, but he works for the Delaware News Journal, and keeps the excellent Phillies blog for the site, I believe. All three of these men, as well as a number of other Philadelphia writers who have spent time with Manuel, speak of his nuanced understanding of the game. That inside the locker room, he has a marvelous comprehension of what is required to win baseball games. They all say that it’s his somewhat oafish appearance, as well as his heavy drawl that keep the Philadelphian public perceiving him as an Elmer Fudd sort of character. He’s not an idiot. He’s no “rocket surgeon”, but he’s no fool, either.

As for the “nice guy” attitude: Manuel played most of his career in Japan. He was nicknamed The Red Devil for his shock of red hair, and for his ferocious temper. Charlie was a younger man back then, and he went off more often. But all reports are that he still goes off from time to time–his team always knows when he’s unhappy with them–but he chooses to handle his criticisms in private. If he’s going to scream at his players, he’s going to do it to their faces, and not in front of cameras. He wants them to know he’s displeased, but he doesn’t want to out them in front of the entire city. I respect that. Players respect that. Last year, while the Phils were in the middle of a losing patch and questions about Charlie’s managing arose, again, Aaron Rowand said it best, “If you can’t play for Charlie Manuel, I just don’t know who you can play for in this league.”

Manuel is not responsible for the Phillies ugly start to the season. Ryan Howard–a player who absolutely must produce for the Phils offense to succeed–has been less than stellar. Howard’s on-base percentage is a fantastic .458, but he’s slugging a Darin Erstad-like .381. Wes Helms, a career part-timer who’s been brought in to be the Phils full time hot cornerman, is on pace for 32 extra base hits this year. Aaron Rowand, wonderfully reaching base at a clip that he cannot possibly keep up (.462), has 1 extra base hit so far this year.

Shane Victorino, a corner outfielder, has been slapping singles all year. He’s speedy so he’s been trying to steal bases. He’s been caught as many times as he’s succeeded. He also bats in the 2-hole, so guys to who tend to hit the ball hard and reach base often (Utley and Howard) are generally in the batters box when he does something stupid, like, I don’t know, trying to steal third in a close game with Howard at the plate and Chase Utley on deck.

And with misery, we have to speak of the catchers. The Phillies have two of them, Carlos Ruiz who is in only his second season in baseball, but he’s 28 years-old, and veteran Rod Barajas, who’s never been particularly good, and he’s old enough that he’s been getting worse and worse for a few years now. Ruiz showed at the end of last year that he might not be a bad hitter at the end of last year, posting excellent numbers in September. Of course, Ruiz isn’t a great defensive catcher. He allowed 4 stolen bases last night, and not one of his throws was particularly close. The Phils guessed right with a pitch-out on a Carlos Beltran steal attempt, and the throw was so far wide of second base that Rollins had no chance to make the tag. As for Rod…he’s a sieve in the batters box. He’s got 5 walks, which is great, and gives him a .368 OBP. Of course, his slugging is only .077 which is unspeakably bad.

On the upside, Pat the Bat is playing just fine (really, I have no complaints whatsoever about him so far this year), and Jimmy Rollins has been outstanding.

Now, Manuel isn’t to blame for any of this. He’s not allowed to use players from other teams, so borrowing Brian McCann and Mariano Rivera and Miguel Cabrera is, apparently, again the rules. So he’s stuck with average to terrible defenders at 5 positions (amazingly, most of their starting pitchers are decent fielders). He said all winter and all spring that the Phils needed bullpen help and GM Pat Gillick gave him…The Octopus, Antonio Alfonseca, who’s about 150 years old.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out what, exactly, Gillick has done to really improve this team since he came along. Behold, below is a list of positions, with the players who started at them before Gillick got there (or, at least, was in the organization already), and who’s there now, thanks to Gillick. The superior player is italicized. If no one is italicized, it’s a draw.

Pos. – Original Player – Current Player

1B – Jim Thome/Ryan Howard – Ryan Howard
2B – Chase Utley – Chase Utley
3B – David Bell – Wes Helms/Abe Nunez
SS – Jimmy Rollins – Jimmy Rollins
LF – Pat Burrell – Pat Burrell
CF – Kenny Loften/Jason Michael– Aaron Rowand
RF – Bobby Abreu – Shane Victorino

Now, I’m willing to dispute the center field analysis. Rowand is a better defender than either of those guys, when he’s healthy. But he wasn’t healthy last year, and he a lousy hitter. Michaels and Loften were a on-base machine. I’m also willing to hear arguments about Bell vs. Helms and Nunez. It’s early in the season still, so Helms may improve, but Bell is a way better hitter than Nunez and a much better fielder than Helms. Bobby Abreu vs. Shane Victorino…well, there’s no comparison. Shane’s the better defender, but that’s about it. Bobby is a much better hitter, and a better baserunner, too.

I’m sick of analysis, but let’s just say that from 2005 to now, the starting rotation is better, but not by much, and there are a lot more potential injuries now than there were then (with Garcia, Hamels, Moyer, Lieber and Eaton having health questions), and the bullpen, which was bad in 2005, is amazingly, much worse in 2007.

No matter what Eskin says, this stuff isn’t Manuel’s fault.

Regardless, Eskin’s whole point about the team being “passive” and needed to get fired up is nonsense. It’s like talking about how certain baseball players are “team guys”. What is that supposed to even mean? Being angry and super-aggressive does not help you play baseball. If your blood boils and you swing as hard as you absolutely can, you will not be a better baseball player. There is nothing harder than hitting a baseball in sports. Baseball is the ultimate sport of “Work smarter, not harder.” Alex Rodriguez, probably the best player in baseball over the past 10 years, estimates that when things are going right for him, he’s swing about 70% as hard as he can. Anything more than that, and he starts missing a lot, and anything less, and he’s not driving the ball. That is, if the really, really, super good A-Rod starts playing “harder”, he will also start playing worse.

So, as Eskin gets to keep his job being a general curmudgeon, the calendar creeps closer and closer to the inevitable date when the Phils’ brass makes a scapegoat of poor ole Cholly Manuel. It won’t be his fault, but that’s how life goes for a country bumpkin, sometimes. Charlie, after the firing, if you’re looking for something to do, come write for the Curious Mechanism. You can spout off about whatever you like. We don’t pay much, but we don’t fire people too often, either.

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3 Comments

Filed under Baseball, Philadelphia

3 responses to “The Red Devil and The Chief

  1. You and David Bell…..

  2. When I read the David Bell part I was really depressed because even you have admitted that he wasn’t good. DAMN YOU PAT GILLICK!!!

  3. Andy

    David Bell… I (irrationally or not) just hate him.

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