By Bill Campbell
To a professional baseball team, nothing means more than healthy spring training. To the Phillies, nothing means more than a healthy Chase Utley. Last Wednesday in the first spring training drill, Utley fielded a ball during a morning infield practice and fired a shot to Ryan Howard at first base. Just the sound of the ball as it landed in Howard’s glove was music to the ears of Ruben Amaro, Jr., David Montgomery and Charlie Manuel. The more it happens, the better it sounds. That sound is a keynote to the Phils’ season.
I’m told that this spring Utley hasn’t been working out alone or taking ground balls while seated on a stool. Rather, during the first week of spring training, he’s been in line with every other healthy player in the Phillies’ camp down in Clearwater. I’m also told that, barring last minute problems, this will continue on the same path when games begin. Charlie Manuel said that Utley would start on the team’s intra-squad game on Friday and likely will be in the starting line-up in the forthcoming weekend when the team plays the Houston Astros. Utley hasn’t played in a spring training game since 2010. He has missed much of the last two exhibition seasons while battling chronic knee problems. Manuel thinks that his second baseman has worked extra hard this winter, particularly in Arizona where Utley trained after the 2012 season ended. “You can tell by the way he looks and the way in which he swings the bat that he’s willing to pay the price to return to where he was. I think Chase wants to play the game for quite a few more years, which is nice to see.” The manager added that Utley wouldn’t play when the Phillies trucked to Lakeland to play Detroit on Sunday. Many veterans get breaks from road trips during the spring as standard operating procedure and Utley likely benefits from the privilege. Beginning this weekend, the Phils will play 6 of their first 8 games at home or either in Tampa or Dunedin, both of which are easy driving distances from Clearwater. Cole Hamels started the spring training opener on Saturday against Houston and Roy Halladay worked effectively on Sunday. So spring training is definitely on.
Mike Schmidt – Ryan Howard – Jonathan Papelbon
Mike Schmidt enjoys his annual trip to spring training. He tries to help out in batting practice and the Hall of Famer certainly has the credentials to do it. Mike will be in Clearwater this spring until March 20th – his longest stay in the last several years. To listen to Schmidt, he sees a different team this year. Schmidt and Ryan Howard do a lot of talking – or rather, when Howard seeks him out, Schmidt’s talking and Howard’s doing the listening. Schmidt has spent time with the newcomer, Michael Young, and says he’s a possible first ballot Hall of Famer, comparing him to Derek Jeter. But the most important thing that Schmidt has mentioned about his Clearwater visit is that the Phillies are showing a different attitude. He says he sees a hunger this spring that he hasn’t seen before. Schmidt commented, “Obviously, in the last four or five years you weren’t looking for guys to be hungry. They were the heirs apparent to all the division titles, the MVP Awards. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The network guys came here before any other place. We were at the top of the game for six of seven year. All of a sudden we find ourselves not being discussed in World Series contention.” Sounds like last year’s slide was sobering and the players are determined to get off to a good start this year. There’s even a different-looking Mike Schmidt in Clearwater. Gone is his singular mustache, replaced by a stubbly beard. So I guess everyone has made some changes. Charlie Manuel seems to like having Schmidt around, saying, “He always brings something to the table.”
Additionally, Jonathan Papelbon, the $50 million reliever, said he would stick by his recent comments about the Phillies lacking leadership. “We had an all-around leadership void from A to Z including the bullpen,” he said, “I wasn’t pointing to one person or a specific incident as the problem.” The pitcher continued, “I put myself in that category as well. I don’t feel like I took a certain leadership role as much as I could have with the guys in the bullpen and I intend to make this change this season. I hope that other guys on this team feel the same way.” Manager Manuel indicated that he previously had talked to Papelbon about his concerns and said that he chalked up his public comments to frustration. If it all leads to a more cohesive approach and overall determination for a winning season, I guess it’s worth the stir the reliever caused last week.
Last week, the Villanova basketball team moved into the NCAA Attention Zone while La Salle fell into the Danger Zone. The Wildcats beat Number 17 Marquette, 60-56, for their third victory over a ranked team on Saturday night. But LaSalle lost a big game to Temple last Thursday, which had to have slowed down the Explorers’ momentum and placed their post-season hopes in jeopardy.
Led by Mouphtau Yarow, Maurice Sutton and Darren Hilliard, Villanova shot 7 for 10 from the field including 2 of the Cats’ four three-pointers, to pace the Cats to victory. They won even though Marquette murdered them on the boards, 37-24. The Golden Eagles shot 60% from the field but this game ultimately was decided on turnovers. Villanova forced 19 and outscored Marquette 17 to 2 in points off turnovers. Possession was worth more than 9/10’s of the law in this one. Wildcats’ coach, Jay Wright, said after the game, “Marquette beats a lot of teams because they compete harder and execute better. To beat that team, we’ve got to play hard. That’s what makes us really proud of the effort.” It was the last game for seniors Yarow and Sutton at the Villanova Pavilion and they left beaming.
Meanwhile, St. Joe’s and its junior guard, Langston Galloway, broke out of a mild slump to down George Washington, 71-59. Galloway scored a season-high 26 points and admitted after the game, “my effort on the court was a reason we have struggled and I had to pick myself up and help us get a win.” In its three prior games, the Hawks had been outscored by 28 points during each first half. But not this time. They shot 8 for 21 from beyond the arc. Galloway had been ill for part of the season but Coach Phil Martelli told him that, while that had much to do with his play, it wasn’t the whole story. Martelli said he’d told him, “You haven’t been the same aggressive player all year at either end of the floor.” That changed on Saturday night at the Hagan Arena in a key game for St. Joe’s.
According to stack selections around the country, LaSalle’s stumble against Temple was significant, as media members began to think and possibly predict what’s going to happen in with the NCAA tournament in March. LaSalle was easily in the chosen field until the Temple game but their rating dropped below Temple’s after the loss. This could change again so, now that we’re at the end of February, hang on.
In sports as in life, timing is everything. The Tom Gamble story, certainly the NFL story of the week, proves it.
Tom Gamble is the son of Harry Gamble, former president of the Eagles. Now it’s like father, like son. Tom Gamble is once again an Eagle, signing on to become Vice President of Player Personnel with the Birds. He and his family loved living in the San Francisco area but the urge to come back home proved irresistible. Though the Eagles have been thinking about Tom for a year or so, the timing just wasn’t right. He worked for the highly successful 49ers for the last couple of years. He interviewed for a couple of GM positions around the league but didn’t get one. He almost signed in a similar capacity with the New York Jets who finally went with Seattle’s John Idzik. Actually the Eagles and Howie Roseman waited a year to replace Ryan Grigson, who left last year for the Indianapolis Colts, before getting a chance at Gamble. Last year, Gamble explained. “The timing just wasn’t right for a lot of different reasons, some family, some professional.” Just as he was about to head for Indianapolis and the scouting combine, Gamble said, “Then this whole thing opened up again. I have a good relationship with Howie Roseman. Living out west in PAC-12 county, I’ve been in and out of the Oregon building. Chip Kelly been in and out of the 49ers place frequently. And I think Chip Kelly is a hell of a coach. Roseman and I spent 5 days on the phone. We talked again after the Super Bowl and this is Philadelphia, a chance to go home. I loved this franchise and this city.” Gamble acknowledged that he “had worked with great people like I did in San Francisco. Coach Jim Harbaugh and a terrific GM, Trent Baalke, told me that if the same opportunity came up next year, they would allow me to leave and they were true to their word.” So Gamble steps into a great opportunity and the Eagles are lucky to get him.
Tom Gamble is a former Eagle who worked in player personnel and scouting before moving on to several other NFL teams where he rose through the ranks. Now he’s come home to the place where he started in the 1980’s and where his father headed the team under Norman Braman in the 1970’s. Summing up his emotions, Gamble said, “This is my 26th year in football. This is what I do. I’m excited to be here and to do what I can to help this team and this franchise. These are terrific people here, to give them everything I’ve got starting at the Combine this week.” He is no happier than his parents, Joan and Harry Gamble, who have been flying from Philadelphia to see their grandchildren in California monthly for the last several years. No more frequent flier miles for them.
The 76ers made a minor move last week at the NBA trading deadline when they acquired a guard, Charles Jenkins, from the Golden State Warriors for cash and a protected second round pick. He’s 6’3#, 2115 pounds, and was sixth in the nation last year, his senior year at Hofstra. Strictly a bench player, Jenkins still was making $793,000 a season on a deal that was set to expire at season’s end. The move left the Sixers with the maximum fifteen players under contract and they guaranteed the contract of point guard, Jeremy Pargo, for the remainder of the season which has thirty games to go. Coach Doug Collins said earlier in the week that he didn’t expect anything significant to happen on the personnel front although Andrew Bynum has decided to scrimmage a bit. The Sixers have been mentioned in rumors involving free agent, Josh Smith and Andrea Bargnani but nothing concrete developed. There were also rumors that the Orlando Magic’s J.J. Redick might come to Philadelphia but he eventually was traded to Milwaukee. The Sixers’ Evan turner was on the middle of those rumors too but nothing came of that either.
The 76ers now head into their final thirty games, eighteen of which will be on the road, trailing the Bucs by 3 ½ games in the fight for the eighth and final spot in the post-season play-offs. Four of the remaining games will be against the conference-leading Miami Heat, who had won eight in a row as of last Thursday night. The Sixers have just emerged from a tough weekend with the Heat and the New York Knicks. Doug Collins expressed his disappointment but an even earlier Sixers game loss, 94-87, to the Timberwolves in their first game after the All Star Break. He benched starters Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes for Damien Wilkins and Kwame Brown saying, “I don’t know what to say to you. It was terrible. I cannot sugar coat it any more than that. The only thing we did in the second half was compete and not very well. We played hard but poorly.” The team also missed Thaddeus Young and he will miss at least the next two games after sitting out the previous five with a strained hamstring. The Sixers just can’t catch a break.
I guess all those Sixers’ problems only lead us back to enjoying spring training: the Phillies play the Braves on Thursday this week at 1:00 p.m. Batter up.