By Bill Campbell

By Bill Campbell

Baseball’s Home Stretch

As we approach the home stretch of the big league baseball season, it’s interesting to observe the comparative closeness of the races in both major league divisions. In the Eastern Division of the National League, Washington’s lead over Atlanta is a mere 4 games. Cincinnati leads Pittsburgh by 6 ½ games and is only 7 ½ up on the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central Division. San Francisco and Los Angeles have been knocking heads all season and as we entered this last month the Giants and Dodgers were in an almost flat-footed tie for the lead out west. The American League wins and losses are quite similar. The Yankees edge on Tampa Bay and Baltimore is less than six games – hardly an insurmountable margin. Chicago and Detroit are battling it out in the Central Division and Texas has a 5 ½ game advantage over Oakland in the west. There aren’t any blow-outs in view.

It’s been a marked contrast in Philadelphia. The Phils are set to play Cincinnati, Washington and the Mets in the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park and will then set out on the road. Over the last five years, they were in the thick of things, pretty much ruling the Eastern Division, so it wasn’t very comfortable facing a 19 game deficit from first place as the weekend began.

The Phillies have been reduced to playing out the string while considering their future and the best way in which to prepare for the challenges of 2013 and beyond. School is still out on Domonic Brown. Placido Polanco is due to return from the DL. They hope to force-feed Carlos Ruiz back into the line-up before the season ends and who plays where in the outfield is anyone’s guess from day to day. In the recent Milwaukee series, Juan Pierre played left field, Laynce Nix center and Brown right. That can and probably will change as the season wanes.

Two notable changes that may become permanent in the future have been the emergence of Eric Kratz in the catching slot and Kevin Frandsen at third base. Both have made frequent appearances in the line-up and have acquitted themselves pretty well offensively and defensively.

It could be a very busy off-season for the Phils moving personnel around. This week their minor league team, Lakewood, will play Delmarva, Reading will meet Harrisburg and Erie in the Lehigh Valley will meet Rochester and Scranton. No doubt, many scouts will be on the scene looking ahead to the 2013 season. I guess we’ve got to do the same.

The Steroid Debate Continues

Has baseball’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs been effective?

That question popped back into the news last week for the fourth time this season when the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games for a positive test. But controversy revolves around the validity of baseball’s drug-testing program. The fourth 50-game suspension of this season matched the number from the previous two seasons combined. And it re-ignites a debate which had been, seemingly, quiet.

The Ryan Braun controversy of last winter – when Braun was relieved of the consequences of a positive test on a technicality – caused some embarrassment in the Commissioner’s office and brought on a new, stricter policy as to the collection of samples. Now the players’ union has agreed to an expanded blood-testing protocol for human growth hormone, but it’s administered only in the winter and during spring training.

There are critics of the penalties themselves – like Arizona Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson, who was infuriated upon learning of Cabrera’s cheating. The fact that Cabrera was hitting 462 (18 for 39) against Arizona and had scored 8 runs against his team may have had something to do with Gibson’s indignation. But he said, “I can say that certainly the majority of people who are in this game care about the integrity of the game. We are committed to cleaning it up. Obviously, 50 games is not a big enough deterrent if it continues.”

Phillies catcher, Brian Schneider, who is involved in union matters and is a former players’ representative, disagrees, saying, “Fifty games is definitely enough. No matter what you do, if there is a law or a rule someone is going to break it. There’s a reason why there are prisons. [But] I definitely think it’s a deterrent.”

Our own Charlie Manuel sagely added, “I would say 50 games is quite a few.” Manuel has had two of his players suspended: J.C. Romero and, earlier this season, Freddy Galvis. A 22-year-old infielder, Galvis was fined $133,000 in addition to the 50-game sit-out.

With all this in mind, there also are discussions about increasing the sentence for first- time offenders. Manuel said, “I would accept the 50 games [for] the first time because that is pretty steep and the second time should be really steep.”

Only two players, Manny Ramirez and Guillermo Mota, have been caught twice for steroid abuse.

Arizona boss Gibson thinks the penalty for a first time offense should be one year and lifetime suspension for the second. So an old debate has come to life again.

The Importance of Winning

I’ve written here several times this year about the wisdom behind that old adage, “Winning isn’t the important thing, it’s the only thing”. The Phillies are proving it to be true once again and not just on the field.

If you’ve been to a Phillies game during the last five victorious years, it was often difficult to differentiate between the players and the spectators. There were so many Phillies jerseys on display both on the field and in the stands, it could be difficult to concentrate on the game. But that has changed a bit in 2012. The team that won 102 games in 2011 has stubbed its toes and it’s become easier to spot the players without the proverbial scorecard. The parking lot at Citizens Bank Field no longer looks like a giant Phillies commercial with people pouring out of their cars wearing team T-shirts, Phanatic caps and whatever else is available. As the season approaches the homestretch, things have changed a lot.

According to SportsOneSource, a Maine firm that keeps track of such things, the sale of licensed major league baseball merchandise was a five billion dollar business in 2011 and the highly successful Phillies accounted for 16.2 % of those sales. The Phils estimated total sales of $812 million was surpassed by only one of the 30 major league teams, the iconic New York Yankees.

But as one might expect when the club’s on-field success falls off, so do the sales.

SportsOneSource reports that the purchase of Phillies-related products has declined by 60% late in the season. While the Phils are still second to the Yankees, their share of the market has fallen from that 16.2 % to 8.9%. Pretty telling, isn’t it? Of course, they won’t take as big a financial hit as some other teams because all non-park licensing revenue goes into a pot and is split evenly among the 30 teams.

Interestingly, although Phillies officials concede these drops in merchandise sales, they note that they are selling a notable number of “Chooch” shirts – which brings me back to the worth of a winner. Carlos Ruiz is having the best season of his career, even though he’s out with an injury at the moment. And he’ll be welcomed back as soon as he’s released to don his catcher’s mask again – a reliable winner in an otherwise losing season. If you don’t win, you don’t sell tickets, you go home early and your T-shirts get packed away till next year.

Catching Up with The Union

After almost ignoring our local soccer team, even through a coaching change, the following comments are inserted. RFK Stadium, where the Union plays their games, is spacious enough to accommodate its many fans. It has held a capacity crowd of 18,000 several times this season – an indication that fans have indeed taken an interest in the teams wins and losses. When attendance fell to 12,312 as it did in last Sunday’s game against D.C. United, even a casual fan takes note. But the game itself provided some interest. The Union scored first but couldn’t do it again and the United had two goals disqualified, much to its chagrin. So the teams had to settle for a 1-1 tie. The Union is now 7-12-3 with 24 points. D.C. United is 11-8-4 with 37 points. It holds the fifth and final Eastern Conference play-off spot. The Union has twelve games remaining and owns a game in hand over the United.

By the way, during that Sunday match-up there were several shoving matches and three ejections. Referee Marc Geiger had a very busy day. In fact, the United coach, Ben Olson, referred to the game as the “Geiger show and he wants to make the big calls to change games.” Referees, questionable calls, that’s a discussion for another day.

Merion Puts on its Make-Up

I know it’s a year away but they’re already selling tickets for the U.S. Open to be held at Merion East from June 13 through 16, 2013. Some notable course changes have been made in anticipation of this terrific event.

Merion will be hosting its fourth Open since 1934, its first since Australian David Graham’s victory in 1981 – which rewarded him a purse of $55,000. Haven’t the times changed? You get that amount these days just for showing up. Because of its comparatively shorter length, it looked like Merion’s time as a U.S. Open course had passed and that its management had accepted its fate. But a change of heart occurred and by 2005 they’d decided to heed USGA suggestions about lengthening some holes, adding a few traps and narrowing some fairways to make the course worthy of hosting another Open.

In 1981 – the waning days of wooden drivers – the course was just 6,400 yards. During that Open there had been parking problems, counterfeit tickets, trampled rough, scarred fairways and mottled greens. During the three prior tourneys, no player had bettered par. Graham won that year with a 273, 7 under, and in the final round when the pressure was on the Australian hit all eighteen greens in regulation. Johnny Miller kept saying that someone might shoot 59 at Merion. It all made Merion look ordinary. Clearly, the club needed to make some significant improvements if the U.S. Open was ever to return there and if Merion was to be in a position as a mainstay in the USGA’s Open rotation.

Now, Merion West has become a practice are and Merion East has stepped it up for the big one. The course has been stretched to 6,900 yards. A bunker has been added in front of the second green and along the fairway at the 16th hole, better known as “the quarry hole”, the fairways have been narrowed to between 22 and 24 yards. The par-3 third hole will fluctuate between 220 and 260 yards. The par 4’s will measure close to or beyond 500 yards. Tees have been pushed back, traps added. The club house has been enlarged and as many as 17,000 grandstand seats will be in place next June. If the goal was to make the course more challenging to today’s players, it sounds like they’ve done it. Merion has made itself ready for the twenty-first century golfers who routinely drive the ball 300 yards and more. Even the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, has said that these improvements will make for an “interesting” tournament.

So Merion East is all dressed up and waiting for a date with the 2013 U.S. Open. It’s still the pretty one but it’s also the one that’s been tightened and tautened to test the skills of Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson and their peers. Just like the rest of us, it sounds like Merion East is still nice to look at. It’s just a little older.

See you there.