By Bill Campbell
It had been eleven days since LeBron James opened for business and he still hadn’t signed with any NBA team. Some rumors had him re-signing with the Miami Heat. His agent, Rich Paul, had indicated that he had spoken to Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles while James remained in Las Vegas at his annual Nike Skills Academy. On Thursday he was joined by his former Heat teammate, Dwayne Wade, where they worked with the camp attendees. However, at this writing, Sports Illustrated has just announced on its website that James has signed a deal to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he deserted four years ago for Miami. Two championship rings later, LeBron is going home. This is an incredible chapter in the James story. In Ohio, they will be dancing in the streets. In Florida, tempers will be flaring.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, was indeed testy during his ninety-minute appearance in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday. You will recall that he had been ousted by the NBA from ownership of the team after he was heard making racist remarks against African-Americans. He is challenging his wife’s $2 billion sale of the team which must be completed by July 15th or be voided. Sterling, who denounced as “hired guns” the doctors who diagnosed him as mentally incompetent, drew many laughs from spectators during the expedited bench trial as he sparred with his wife’s attorneys. His lawyers are challenging the authority of Shelly Sterling under the family trust to unilaterally cut a deal for the team with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, as she succeeded her husband’s control of the family trust that owns the team once he was declared incompetent. But Sterling testified that he believes he could have cut and still can get a better deal if left alone to negotiate the sale himself. When leaving the court room Sterling shouted to anyone within earshot, “Make no mistake today. I will never, ever sell this team and until I die I will be suing the NBA for this terrible violation under antitrust [laws].” We haven’t heard the last from him.
The All Star Game will be played on Tuesday, July 15th, at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Phillies second baseman, Chase Utley, came into the final week of All Star voting about 900,000 votes ahead of his counterpart in Pittsburgh, Neil Walker. Utley was a five-time All Star from 2006-10. He was voted in as a starter in all of his overall All-Star Games though he couldn’t start in 2010 because of an injury. His two-year battle with knee injuries kept him out of contention after that but he’s back on board this year. From 2010 to 2012, Utley hit .254 and averaged 100 games per season. Asked his thoughts on this latest honor, Utley said, “I think all the time and the hard work I’ve put in has paid off,” Utley said. “Obviously your first All-Star Game, you really appreciate. After the issues I’ve gone through over the past 2-3 years, it is nice to be back.” Interestingly, four different second basemen have started in the 4 years since Utley started in four games in a row: Martin Prado (2010), Rickie Weeks (2011), Dan Uggla (2012) and Brandon Phillips (2013). The last second baseman to start more than four in a row was a guy named Ryne Sandberg (eight straight, 1986-93).
Cliff Lee began an official rehab assignment with Class A Clearwater this week. Unfortunately, rain slowed down his return to active play with the Phillies. He threw 24 pitches in two innings in an outing against the Threshers this week but the game was called in the middle of the third after a long rain delay. Lee has been on the Disabled List since mid-May with left elbow strain. In this shortened contest, he struck out two and allowed one hit in two shutout innings. But he has to build up his pitch count and arm strength before he rejoins the team. Clearly, that won’t take place until after next week’s All Star break.
Last Saturday out in Pittsburgh was the first time a healthy Chase Utley and a healthy Ryan Howard were not in a starting line-up since July 15, 2012. Utley had been in a serious slide at the plate for nearly a month. Howard was 3 for 32, with no extra base hits, in his last nine games. So Manager Ryne Sandberg gave the two veterans a day off out in Pittsburgh. Ty Wiggington (first base) and Mike Fontenot (second base) started in their steads. The Pittsburgh games were pretty unpalatable, with the Phils losing three straight, 8-2, 3-2, 6-2. The absence of Howard and Utley really did not mean much either way. “It’s very hard to believe,” Phillies right-hander A.J. Burnett said during the week there. “There’s a lot of talent in this room beyond what we’re doing. No question. Find a way to keep plugging, man. I know I say that every time I start, but that’s the truth. You can’t get down. You can’t pout. You can’t hang your head. Fifty-one losses, that’s not good at all. You’ve got to come in and somehow stay in the right frame of mind and try to keep plugging.” At that point, this was the first Phillies team to lose more than 50 games before the All-Star break since the 1997 Phillies entered the break at 24-61. However, a few things have happened since then.
After watching the lackluster effort of the last several weeks, Phillies General Manager, Ruben Amaro, Jr., announced on Monday that there definitely will be changes coming to the make-up of this team. A frustrated Cole Hamels, pitching brilliantly this season but winning few thanks to the team’s poor hitting, acknowledged that he would entertain trade offers to certain teams. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, who have no-trade clauses in their hefty contracts, indicated they would not be interested in making an exception for a trade. However the always-verbal reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, said that anyone who wouldn’t want to take a chance on playing for a winning team is, basically, crazy. The squad itself held a locker room meeting in Milwaukee and Jimmy Rollins acknowledged that the hitters gathered at home plate on Wednesday night to clear their heads and focus on the basics of good hitting while ignoring the criticism, however justified. And what happened? The Phillies swept the Milwaukee Brewers this week in four straight efforts, 3-2, 9-7, 4-1 and 9-1. On Tuesday night out in Miller Park, Domonic Brown turned in one of his best games of the season and helped the Phillies notch a win. Brown singled, homered and walked. He scored two runs and drove in three. The performance raised his OPS to .608, hardly inspiring, but nonetheless his best mark since May 3rd. Brown wasn’t the only Phillies hitter to have a big night as the team won two in a row for the first time in nearly three weeks. Chase Utley knocked in three runs, two in a five-run second inning. Ben Revere also had a two-run double in that inning. On Thursday night, in back-to-back innings, Jimmy Rollins ended pitcher Matt Garza’s no-hit bid and a shut-out. His two-out, two-run single in the eighth inning set off a seven-run explosion that completed the Phillies’ sweep of the Brewers in style. It was a great way for the Phils to end a ten-game road trip that had started out 1-5. This was the first time the team had recorded a four-game sweep since 2011 against Cincinnati. This definitely was the better way to head into the All Star break.
Elsewhere in Baseball
No one in Philadelphia will soon forget Dodgers’ pitcher, Josh Beckett, who threw a memorable no-hitter against the Phillies at Citizen’s Bank Park on May 25th. Out in Los Angeles on July 7th, however, the Dodgers placed the right-handed starter on the fifteen-day disabled list with left hip impingement. In New York, Andrew Rector, a sleeping fan who was caught on camera by ESPN during its broadcast of the Yankees-Red Sox game back on April 13th, filed a defamation suit against the network and its two broadcasters, Dan Shulman and Jon Kruk. Rector alleges that the two unleashed an “avalanche of disparaging words” as his nationally televised nap was aired. He states that the TV pair described him as “a fatty”, “unintelligent” and “stupid” when the camera repeatedly stayed on him as he slept through the game. However, a review of the game tape contains none of those words, though the on-air team did have a few laughs at Rector’s expense. At one point, as the camera panned back to Rector snoozing in his seat, Shulman asked Kruk, “Did he sleep through the [Carlos] Beltran homer? I mean 45,000 people stand up and cheer and he sleeps through?” Kruk replied, “I think it would be tough to, but he seemed pretty comfortable. It didn’t look like he [had] just started to sleep.” The “disparaging words” appear to have been the product of Twitter feeds and Internet sharing during and after the game itself. That hasn’t dissuaded Mr. Rector who seeks $10 million in damages as compensation for his alleged damages. Apparently, nobody told him there’s no crying in baseball.
The Washington Nationals will be in town to play the Phillies this weekend. The Sixers have played a few summer games down in Orlando, Florida, where rookie, Nerlens Noel, has caught the attention of press and fans alike. Rookies are set to report to the Eagles training camp on July 22nd and the full team is due in on July 25th at the Nova Care training facility in South Philadelphia. It’s pretty warm outside now but, if the Birds are coming back into town, can autumn be far behind?