By Bill Campbell
No one knows better than Charlie Manuel what Jim Thome brings to a baseball team.
Manuel has a lot of experience with Thome. Jim is on Manuel’s club, not only for his ability with the bat, but for his off-field personality as well. And he’s a great example for young players in the manner in which he conducts himself. Manuel knew what he was getting in Thome and has to silently regret that the Phillies are not in the American League where he could be used as a designated hitter. It would enable him to come to bat four or five times per game, increasing his availability when the game is one the line. When inter-league games are played, particularly in National League parks, Thome’s appearances are restricted strictly to pinch-hitting. Just such a moment presented itself last Saturday in the ninth inning against Tampa Bay.
The pitcher was due to lead off the ninth inning as the batter but everyone in the ballpark and on radio and TV knew that the pitcher would be denied the at-bat as long as Jim Thome was on the roster. Jim ran the count to 3 and 2 and got a fastball to hit. And did he ever hit it! It surprised me that a fast ball was thrown in that particular situation. I’m sure that most of Thome’s 600-and-some home runs have come on fast balls — and more than a few with games on the line. He has hit home runs in both leagues – over 100 of them with the Phillies — who are pleased to have him back.
Jim is a sure shot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, which requires the votes of seventy-five percent of the baseball writers. In all my years as a sports broadcaster, I have never heard anyone describe Thome in anything but the most glowing terms. If he isn’t admitted to the Hall of Fame, there should be major investigation, not of Jim Thome but of the baseball writers who didn’t vote for him on the first ballot. Thome’s home run blast last weekend also provided Charlie Manuel with his 900th career managerial win. Jim’s comment, “To come to the park and accomplish that for Charlie is kind of the ultimate,” says it all.
That the Phillies “ain’t what they used to be” has been obvious since the early days of spring training. But their lack of progress has started to affect the manager a bit. After a long Sunday afternoon and evening in which they lost both ends of a double-header, the Skipper finally gave voice to his frustrations. In his post-game comments after the second defeat, Manuel addressed the press. “You guys ought to sit in the dugout with me and give me all the scenarios if you don’t think I know them. You guys ought to sit down there with us or Tweet us during the game or something.” Actually the team, the bullpen and the Phillies’ general moves overall came in for questioning including those of the manager.
In the first game of the day-and-night twin bill, they wasted 7 shut-out innings pitched by Cole Hamels into a 3-2 defeat. They got no better for Cliff Lee as the sun went down, with the lefty suffering his fourth inexplicable defeat in what was his twelfth start as the month of July approaches. That Lee has not tasted victory in those twelve starts is more mysterious than anything that has happened to this team in this weird season. When the subject of Lee came up, Manuel admitted he had no satisfactory explanation nor could he explain why Hamels was relieved by Antonio Bastardo in the first game except to offer, “He’s our eighth inning guy.
As such, he should be able to throw three days in a row. If we’re going to use him like that in the eighth inning, he has to be ready to throw two or three days in a row.” Bastardo came on to yield two walks and a homer to Carlos Pena. Then in the bottom of the eighth, we had a chess match between Manuel and Rays’ manager, Joe Madden. It all started with a Jim Thome pinch hitting appearance again. It worked wonders on Saturday but never materialized on Sunday. Thome, unsurprisingly, was purposely walked. The bottom of the eighth only led to more questioning of Manuel and there was still another game to be played which led to the Lee loss and the end of a brutally long day.
Even the news that Chase Utley was going to start working out at Triple A did little to dispel the gloom that settled over the almost-deserted ballpark. But the latest word on Chase Utley is his comment, “A lot of people have given up on me. A lot of people have given up on this team. I haven’t given up on either.” Utley says his knees feel better than they have in years and, after one last fling in Triple A, he’s hoping to play at second base on Wednesday night against the Pirates.
The baseball trade of some significance this week involved Kevin Youkilis, a fan favorite in Boston who has been traded to the Chicago White Sox in a rather surprising move. Youkilis is a 33-year older who can play first and third but was told recently that emerging rookie Will Middlebrooks would be taking over at third, ending Youkilis’ nine-year career in Boston. However, even on his last day in Boston he tripled and was lifted for a pinch runner. I can’t believe they didn’t think he could score from third. There were some rumors a month or so ago that the Phillies were considering Youkilis but they turned out to be just rumors. The White Sox are battling for the American League Central lead and can probably use an experienced player like Youkilis. Wait and see.
Flyers Make Some Moves
Speaking of player movements and trades, I was somewhat surprised that the Flyers traded winger James van Riemsdyk to Toronto. But in acquiring defenseman Luke Schen from Toronto, they have undoubtedly improved their defense and have succeeded in reuniting the twenty-two-year-old Schen with his kid brother, Brayden, a twenty-year-old Flyers’ center. The brothers appear to be pretty close. The defense will be improved but the Flyers still need another boost or two on offense. With their second round pick in the recent draft they landed another goaltender with nearby roots, Anthony Stolarz from Jackson New Jersey. Stolarz is a 6’5”, 210-pounder who was rated the fourth best North American goaltender in the recent draft by Central Scouting. He plans a college career at Nebraska-Omaha and has no set timetable for when he wants to reach the NHL. The Flyers may need his help sooner than this young man thinks.
Before the 76ers had a chance to draft anyone, their front office plans went askew. They were very interested in signing Danny Ferry for the position of general manager. That plan went up in smoke when Ferry signed last Monday as general manager of the Atlanta Hawks on a six-year deal. Ferry will replace Rick Sund in Atlanta. The Sixers want to replace Rod Thorn but now Thorn may stay here to serve the last year of his contract and remain with the team as a consultant. Looking for a general manager with the player draft upon us isn’t that easy. Thorn is 71 years of age and has about had it when it comes to running a franchise. Can’t blame him, even though the Sixers have turned a corner.
Tennis will occupy most of the media headline space this fortnight as the pro tennis world returns to the All England Club and the green grass of Wimbledon. Roughly 128 players will be involved, male and female. But there will be three meaningful male names: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nidal and Roger Federer. Those three have combined to win 28 of the last 29 majors. Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003 but has been the runner-up at Wimbledon three times. The other guy who deserves some consideration is Andy Murray, a three-time major finalist. There is great parity among the women in Grand Slams headed by Maria Sharapova, who has just won the French Open and who won Wimbledon at age 17, among others.