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Mug Of Malcolm: Ah There Goes Clifton Lee

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, August 02, 2009 08:00 AM Comments: 23

This is Mug of Malcolm, a weekly Sunday column written by Tim Malcolm, senior writer of Phillies Nation. E-mail him at tim@philliesnation.com

CliftonPhiferOne of Arkansas’ most famous natives is Levon Helm, drummer and slack-jawed vocalist of the iconic Band. He made a killing from his geographic placement: With a drawl that rang from the hearts of the tattered south, he laced pathos to songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Ophelia.”

But Helm’s best quality remains to this day his superb percussionist talents. Keeping a beat like a veteran grandfather clock, he always knows when to punch an additional snare, or slice the cymbal gently, or hiccup his back for effect. With a blue-collar ethos, Helm stands true at his kit, pushing through each grand song with stunning wizardry.

Not far west of Helm’s native town of Turkey Scratch, Ark., lies Benton, native town of Clifton Phifer Lee, born with the gift to hurl 90 mph fastballs past unsuspecting southerners. In time and from injury, Lee has developed himself into a controlled surgeon of the hill. His fastball still flies by, but his decimating curveball dips terribly out of the hitter’s focus, while a great changeup and cutter fall into place justifiably.

Like the driftwood drummer of The Band, Lee uses his whole repertoire with intelligence and wizardry. Out on the hill that foggy Friday night, Lee even resembled a wizard: His over-sized jersey hanging from his arms, turning him into some stick-figure Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He barely broke a sweat, and when scoring stunning — and simply beautiful — hits, he giggled them off with uncertain surprise. Like a true Arkansan.

The one quality that Helm possesses that even I have trouble grasping is his ability to see through the madness of his line of work. Joining up at age 17 with Ronnie Hawkins, one of Canada’s most revered front-men, Helm was quickly thrown into a world where everything was growing exponentially. His new co-players, led by Canadians Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko, grew with him, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel to become — possibly — rock and roll’s greatest and tightest group of musicians.

After ditching Hawkins, Helm and his mates met a folk troubadour named Bobby Zimmerman. Together they’d create amazing music. And soon everyone wanted Helm and his band, The Band. They cut some albums together, and slowly, each member of The Band reacted harshly to new-found success.

Manuel, a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a golden voice, turned hard to the sauce. He recuperated in time, but old habits make a man die hard. He passed in 1986.

Danko, whose incredible voice shook with fear, fell hard after a life of rampant drug use and internal physical problems, spurned mainly by the rigors of being a musician. He died in 1999.

Robertson, while still cooking today, fell out of favor with his mates, and most Band followers will curse you if you bring up his name. His addictive personality comes through fully on the iconic film “The Last Waltz.”

Hudson is still alive and doing well, as is Helm, who resides in the quiet art colony of Woodstock, N.Y. You’ve heard of the place, but it’s not “the” place — it’s simply where Helm hides away, playing incredible weekly late-night concerts for gobs of money. He never abused himself. He never shook himself. And today he’s happy, defeating throat cancer, singing again, playing again.

The height of fame

I wonder how Cliff Lee will respond to his new surroundings — the insulated madness of Citizens Bank Park on a hot, summer evening; the throngs of red-clad fans screaming his name; the pressure of raising another flag high into the South Philadelphia sky. But something comforts me when I think about his character — if there’s a little Levon Helm in him, he should be fine.

We’ve seen men shrink at pressure and new venues. CC Sabathia found Milwaukee a piece of chocolate cake after arriving there, then stepped into the Thunderdome, was shaken by Brett Myers and thousands of eager fans, then rocked by Shane Victorino. Rich Harden succumbed to pressure in his first postseason with Chicago, lasting only into the fifth inning.

And yet Joe Blanton, the unheralded pickup at the trade deadline, powered through and lasted past his contemporaries, even punching a home run in the World Series as a Cash-ian middle finger to the pundits. Blanton? A Kentucky kid, seemingly unfazed by the lights. A good character guy, salivated over by Billy Beane, who knew he had a expert major league gunslinger in his grasp back in 2002.

To say it’s a south thing is too simple. But some guys aren’t simply cut for the big stage. That’s why enormous trade deadline deals almost never pan out — the pressure behind the deals almost always outweighs the production gained. Does Colorado’s Leroy Halladay succumb to the pressure of pitching in a pennant race? Who knows. We won’t now. But now we know it’s Clifton Phifer Lee who must help slam the door on the rest of the National League.

I go back to “The Last Waltz.” Martin Scorsese led a team that captured The Band at its last classic lineup concert. Jammed to the gills with cocaine, Scorsese and cohort Robertson formed a guest list as high as the rock mountains. There was Hawkins, and Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and, of course, Bobby Zimmerman, to name some. The film interspersed the iconic performances of The Band and their guests with backstage scenes where Robertson speaks about nothing and everything to Scorsese. You see Robertson trying to etch his solo star with this very performance. Meanwhile, there’s one scene of Helm, alone, at a table, discussing medicine shows — traveling friendly rock concerts — over a cigarette.

Helm would soon carry out his medicine show dream, turning it into his current rambles. At “The Last Waltz” concert — a Thanksgiving night show — with Manuel’s voice considerably lower register and Robertson and Danko more erratic than ever, Helm stayed at his kit, still a bit surprised that all these great artists were shuffling into the stage to fete his band. But he played each song with superb precision, never giving up his beat and never overpowering his bandmates. His vocal and drum performance of his trademark “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” remains the definitive reading.

In many ways, “The Last Waltz” represents everything good and bad about The Band. Bad because the characters in the group over-saturated the enormous talent. Good because it showcased enormous talent still in top form. And it showed that Levon Helm had this workman’s personality that could overcome any obstacle. It would years later, it still does today.

And if that awkward kid from Turkey Scratch, Ark., could run through a charmed life with the solid steel character of a blue-collar wizard, I have no doubt that Clifton Phifer Lee could do the same. They’re practically cut from the same dang cloth.

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Phillies’ Loss Will Be Royals’ Huge Gain

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, March 22, 2009 07:00 AM Comments: 9

Forget Pat Burrell. The Phillies greatest offseason loss was Mike Arbuckle.

Sure, that’s a heavy statement, but there is great truth in it: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson. There is more truth: Scott Rolen, JD Drew, Gavin Floyd, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Marlon Byrd, JA Happ, Kyle Kendrick, Geoff Geary, Adam Eaton, Michael Bourn.

Between 1993 and 2008, Arbuckle scouted and drafted (overseeing or primary) or signed 33 major league players — yes, even Eaton. But after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, and after the organization promoted Ruben Amaro Jr. to general manager, Arbuckle decided there was nothing more he could do within the system, gracefully bowing out and accepting a senior adviser role with the Kansas City Royals.

Mark my words: the Kansas City Royals will be competitive within three years.

In fact, baseball experts are nudging the powder blues as the 2009 version of the Tampa Bay Rays: A feel-good, front-office savvy franchise with young talent and humble expectations. The 2008 Royals finished 75-87, losing badly in a manner like the four seasons prior. But the management is sharp — General Manager Dayton Moore is a student of the John Schuerholz style of winning, and is committed to speedy offense and young pitching. Hitters Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler are all on the upswing, while pitchers Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies and Joakim Soria anchor a pitching staff that closely echoes the ’08 Rays. Are they the next Rays? Maybe not, but that’s not even where Arbuckle comes in.

Where Arbuckle comes in is the long-term planning of the franchise, and the Royals are in solid shape for the next few years. The Arbuckle strategy of drafting netted the Phillies some unbelievably talented players, but the result formulated after a decade. The same will be true for Kansas City, but this time there’s already a solid base working.

But back to that draft strategy. Arbuckle’s style was to draft green, five-tool-style players early, signing them around slot because of their relative lack of baseball experience. The strategy seemed ridiculous, and read that way with players such as Reggie Taylor, but once in a while a player will pan out. Arbuckle’s big winner here was Rollins, who of course has become a top-level, MVP-caliber shortstop. With Arbuckle’s hand in the draft pot, the Royals will score one, too.

Another hallmark of Arbuckle’s drafts is the run of college players toward the middle. He oversaw the 2001 draft, which brought one-tool college hitter Howard to the Phillies. Now Howard is the game’s most-feared slugger. Could the Royals gain a guy like Howard? It’s possible.

Of course it’s possible with anybody helping the general manager. But Arbuckle’s style has demonstrated three sure things: The ability of high-risk, high-reward picks to pan out; the potential of middle-round picks to net big returns; and third, a solid foundation of organizational role players. That list includes your Byrds, your Marlon Andersons, your Gearys, your Johnny Estradas. And while it took a while and a new general managing philosophy, Arbuckle helped turn the Phillies farm system to respectability.

The Royals also have a respectable farm system, rated closely with the Phillies. This means Arbuckle is entering the second phase with Kansas City — the system is in place; now he has to stock it the way he knows how: With organizational role players and the occasional big boom. So instead of calling the Royals the next Rays, think of the 2009 Royals as the 2001 Phillies: Some of the pieces are now in place, but there’s some digging to do yet.

Sure the Phillies won’t miss Arbuckle too badly, but they lost a man who knew how to help construct a franchise on the rebound. In 1993 Arbuckle inherited a franchise with blind hopes at the major league and minor league levels. While the ’93 team proved to be a one-trick pony, the lower levels featured highly touted Tyler Green and Dave Coggin. Arbuckle’s second draft pick was Rolen. It got good from there. And now the Phillies are reaping the rewards, locking up most of Arbuckle’s finds to long-term deals. Suddenly these guys are the class of baseball.

The Royals might be in the same league a few years from now. They certainly made a step in the right direction.

Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com

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Clearwater: A State Of Mind

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, March 15, 2009 06:31 AM Comments: 9

The Boeing 737 was packed to the brim. When one thought the plane could fill no more, another group of five entered. Soon they settled in and buckled their seat belts. And if one squinted his eyes at the front of the 737, it would resemble that Halloween scene on Broad Street: A sea of red.

This Southwest Airlines flight was direct from Philadelphia to Tampa on a chilly Saturday morning. Passengers eschewed coats for the morning, shivering it out in sweatshirts — many depicting that iconic 2008 world champion logo. On this March morning, in the midst of an economic crisis and a dreary winter still ongoing, the faces were all bright. A beaming red, really. Almost all the passengers on this flight were venturing to Clearwater, Fla., to see the Phillies at spring training.

It’s a ritual that tracks back to the Model-T: Teams training for the upcoming season in warm-climate cities and towns, getting a jump on the season with some pitch-and-catch. The Phillies set shop in Clearwater in 1947; fittingly, many fans who frequent spring training became adults the very time the Phils landed in Florida. So, in a sense, these fans grew up with Clearwater. When they had enough money and time, they would travel south to catch the Phillies in action, take in the warm weather, play golf and enjoy life. In many ways, Clearwater is more about the fans than the ritual of season preparation.

Most days in Clearwater begin early, despite the partying undertaken the night before. Fans line up in droves outside Lenny’s, the classic Phillies-themed diner near Bright House Field. Owner Dan Farrell outfitted his diner this year to reflect the champs, showcasing new renderings of popular players and the Phillie Phanatic. Meanwhile, a sign over Lenny’s exclaims, “One Dollar Yuenglings.” Head to most bars, convenience stores and mini marts in the Clearwater area, and you can grab a six of Yuengling anytime.

Rummaging through the Phillies Majestic Clubhouse Store, too, is like landing at an American embassy — suddenly you feel at home looking at the logo-emblazoned T-shirts and stuffed Phillie Phanatics. And when at the practice fields at the Carpenter Complex, you’re suddenly a part of the family, walking alongside top prospects in street clothes, chatting with moms and dads, picking out the youngsters by their faces. Search long enough and see Scott Palmer running around, or Chuck Lamar pacing through the complex. For once the names you’ve heard and seem so untouchable are right there in plain view.

Of course, it’s not some awe-inspiring thing. They have jobs. They have lives. But when you follow a team so religiously, you tend to hold certain people to higher plateaus; to be able to humanize them and catch them in their most ethereal is quite taken. It’s fun watching a game at Citizens Bank Park, but on a small practice field in Clearwater? You’ll never see a major leaguer so up close again.

And you’ll never see a Philadelphian so unabashedly happy.

And why not? Throughout the complex and Bright House Field the words “2008 World Champions” cover everything. Banners hang from fences. Logos stick on doors. The offseason indicated the Phillies weren’t shy from recovering their 2008 accomplishments, as the front office locked up several young players for giant raises or extensions. The Phillies seemed immune to the economy, boasting their world championship status like a newfound fortune. And somehow, the fans are still coming. As if Clearwater was immune, too.

Interestingly, Major League Baseball is not suffering from the economic doldrums this spring. Attendance at spring training facilities is up two percent from last year. But how? Part of it might be the World Baseball Classic. But likely, it’s an indicator that baseball fans need a diversion from the harsh realities of everyday life. Finances are dwindling. Homes are seeing foreclosure. Workers are losing jobs. What better time to scrounge up a couple hundred dollars, hop a cheap flight and catch a couple games in the sunshine?

For Phillies fans, Clearwater is a diversion, as well. It’s a chance to soak in the heat while the city recovers from winter. And it’s a chance to reconnect with those regular haunts such as Lenny’s and Frenchy’s, a chance to buy that Phillies merchandise in preparation for the 2009 season. And it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends, sit around a table with a couple beers and chat about other friends, kids, college and high school, romances, and of course, the Phillies.

In many ways, Clearwater is a state of mind. It’s the place where we escape from our realities. We can forget about work, forget about responsibilities. We can merely concentrate on having the best time possible. And, of course, baseball. This is the time the nickname “The American Pastime” really means something.

For the hundreds of Phillies fans on that Boeing 737, they were already transitioning. The Phillies gear, out in plain sight, never looked so good. As a calm flight began its descent onto the Florida soil, passengers chatted about their experiences — not working in Center City or the Northeast, but watching the Phillies.

One man next to me talked about the reason for his trip to Florida: Golf. A round a day for the next week. Oh, and baseball: He was seeing the Phillies play the Marlins in Jupiter. He had been coming to Clearwater for years thanks to his “Phillie connections”: mainly, his nephew, Tom Burgoyne. Yes, the Phillie Phanatic. He waxed about seeing the franchise grow through the years, admitting the free agent failures of the past but confirming “they are a very well-run organization.” Most would agree these days — they started slow, but suddenly the Phillies are a gold standard. Right down to the marketing department — his nephew would know.

Before exiting the plane and feeling the warm Florida air, the man wished me a fun trip. I returned the favor. “I will enjoy it. I think I deserve it. I’ve took my lumps for years.”

Seemingly, we’ve all taken our lumps. And Clearwater lets us remember what it’s like to be happy.

Mug of Malcolm is published weekly at PhilliesNation.com

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World Baseball Classic Matters, But It’s Too Prominent

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, March 08, 2009 08:02 AM Comments: 43

At the Tokyo Dome, the Taiwanese World Baseball Classic team lost to the Chinese World Baseball Classic team. Taiwanese fans cried. Literally bawled. They said they didn’t want Taiwan to continue going abroad to play other nations in baseball for humiliation’s sake.

Meanwhile at Rogers Centre in Toronto, 40,000 Canadians packed in to cheer on their Canadian World Baseball Classic team. The United States defeated them, however, but it barely made headlines.

Carlos Ruiz is the starting catcher for the Panamanian team. Really, he’s the country’s most popular player. The focus of that iconic game five photo, Ruiz was coaxed by the president of his country to play in the World Baseball Classic. Barack Obama did not call Jimmy Rollins.

Chan Ho Park wanted to play for his South Korean team. He really wanted to play. But he decided he couldn’t — instead, he had to win a starting rotation spot for the Phillies, the major league’s top team. He had to stay in America. He cried. Literally bawled.

And yet in America, we don’t care. Like when the World Cup invades our televisions — it truly invades — we yawn and carry on after it ends. Baseball is the great unifier, and yet it unifies nothing in the United States.

A division bell

If anything, baseball in America divides. Baseball fans are divided into 30 contingents. The media plays up the rivalries — Yankees vs. Red Sox, Phillies vs. Mets, Cubs vs. Cardinals, Dodgers vs. Giants. When our teams win, we not only celebrate victory, but we laugh in the face of our rivals. When Jimmy Rollins took the stage at the Phillies’ victory celebration, he assured a hard dig at the Mets. Why? What’s the point?

When the United States team assembled for the World Baseball Classic, we rued the idea of Rollins and Shane Victorino playing alongside David Wright. We expressed caution for the players’ performances after the classic. The major league season is much more important — that’s where rivarly is cultivated. That’s when we expend our emotions.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world cheers and hisses and lives and dies with what occurs on the field. For a tournament created three years ago.

A solution

A solution, then, to keep international interest high and keep major league players out of injury risk, is to turn the World Baseball Classic into an amateur tournament. Half the teams are filled to the brim with amateur players; why should there be an uneven field? Why not make the World Baseball Classic the substitute for the winter leagues every three years?

Most Americans view the classic as an unnecessary problem, and it can be fixed to satisfy everyone; still, we can’t deny what importance an event like this brings to other nations.

Chan Ho Park recently waxed about the impact he had on his nation. He was the first South Korean to reach the major leagues, and his fellow Koreans watched him madly. During tough economic times, people huddled around televisions early in the morning to watch Park pitch against major league teams. Early in his career he was astounding. He gave his countrymen hope.

Every fifth day South Koreans watched Park judiciously. If he could do it, anyone could. Children admired and imitated him. He was a national hero.

In 2006, Park represented South Korea in the World Baseball Classic and tossed 10 scoreless innings. He again gave his nation hope.

And here we are, 2009. Now it’s the United States under a cloud of economic horror. Some of the greatest baseball players from across the country have gathered to win a tournament, but to us, it’s just that: A ridiculous tournament that takes away from the intensity of a major league season.

Maybe a change to the tournament will put it in its rightful place.

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To Be Philadelphian Is To Live With Slings

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, March 01, 2009 07:00 AM Comments: 31

Some day in 1968 at Franklin Field, a bunch of drunken, rowdy Eagles fans booed to and threw snowballs at a man in a Santa Claus suit. More than 40 years later, can you believe we’re still dealing with that?

Every few weeks the fact will reappear. Yes, Philadelphia sports fans once jeered and pelted Santa. It happened. Yes, Philadelphia sports fans once threw batteries at JD Drew. That happened, too. And yes, Philadelphia sports fans once booed at the selection of Donovan McNabb in the NFL Draft. And at 9 p.m. Monday, the Discovery Channel will feature the post-World Series celebration in Philadelphia on their show “Rampage! Riot Rampage 2.”

Subtle, isn’t it?

Philadelphia sports fans have long been subject to generous amounts of criticism and scorn. Most of it is image — the media plays up the image of the Philadelphia fan to drive emotional impact, which drives viewership. Leading up to the NFC Championship, I encountered numerous people normally impartial to football who said they wanted the Cardinals to win. Why? “I hate Philly fans.” Take the World Series, which featured the lovable Rays — already Philadelphians were cooked in the support column. Much of the country rallied around the Rays, and a lot of it was because people didn’t want to see Philadelphia sports fans happy.

Much of the country is conditioned to think that Philadelphia sports fans should always be miserable because they’ve caused so much past trouble. You know, Santa Claus, and JD Drew and Donovan McNabb. But does the country remember 2003?

Bruising Boston

I attended Boston University from 2002 to 2006, and in 2003, the Boston Red Sox entered the postseason behind the “Cowboy Up” mantra voiced by first baseman Kevin Millar. The Sox had finally gained some respect and love by people across the country — suddenly the Red Sox were the lovable underdogs. Considering their divisional doppelganger — the New York Yankees — were the reigning dynasty of baseball, coming off five World Series appearances in the previous seven seasons, everyone wanted to see the Red Sox grasp the baton from the Yankees and end an 85-year drought.

But before the Red Sox could face the Yankees, they had to defeat the Oakland Athletics. It was close, but the Sox fended off the A’s in five games, taking the American League Division Series and sending their fans to a frenzy. A frenzy that went too far.

My friends and I raced across the street to Kenmore Square, which bordered Fenway Park and held the bulk of the celebration. Kenmore was a mob scene — thousands of college students huddled like sardines, waving their arms, flipping cars, climbing onto rooftops, starting fires. Girls flashing the crowds. Other students hanging onto lampposts like monkeys. Almost 100 revelers inked their fingers that night.

Boston lost to the Yankees in an epic American League Championship Series, but the country remained romanticized by the Red Sox. The creation of Red Sox Nation turned the team into an institution, and in the 2004 ALCS the Sox famously upended the Yankees in a stunning comeback. Another celebration began.

Another hundred revelers were arrested as students again caused havoc on the streets of Boston. And sadly, one student — 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove — lost her life after being shot in the eye by a police officer’s pepper spray projectile. That moment tempered future celebrations, even the one that came after the Sox dispatched the Cardinals to win the World Series. Police in full riot gear surrounded Fenway Park throughout the World Series, even when the Sox weren’t playing at home.

As an excited but distanced observer of those 2003 and ’04 celebrations, I can say honestly that a wealthy percentage of the revelers were college students. Some lived in other parts of the country, some were bona-fide fans. For lack of a better term, they rioted. They damaged. They cost the city. And yet it’s the car flipping and song singing of the 2008 World Series celebration that finds time on a show called “Rampage! Riot Rampage 2.”

That’s because 2008 was Philadelphia, a city decided long ago to inhabit nothing but disgusting, foul-mouthed fans. Some of these loudmouthed grovelers became radio hosts and television personalities. And they wax poetic about the Jersey shore, hanging on the corner in the lower Northeast and smoking packs of Parliament. They snub those who disagree with them, yet embrace the misinformed. They revel in mom’s spaghetti and Danny’s hoagie shop, Tony’s pizza and Frank’s soda. Their version of culture is North Philadelphia, however sad that aspect seems. And their version of celebration is pounding cheap beer, stuffing face with bread and meat. It’s a Philadelphia thing. And yet, it’s the very thing we hate when outsiders heckle.

Simply Philadelphian

What does sports mean to Philadelphians? Really, it means everything.

You’re born into a large family and a small row home. You attend school with people who mirror you — they have brothers and sisters, they have the same food, clothing, toys, hobbies and faces. You grow up acclimating yourself to the people in your neighborhood. You decide to also have a large family. You might attend college, and if so, it’s in the city. You return home. You create your family. You move to a neighborhood that houses new couples. You grow your family. You work long hours and provide for your suddenly large clan. And why do you do all of this? It’s comfortable.

Philadelphians revel in comfort. They want children who were like them. They want families who were like theirs. They want jobs that were like their fathers’. And they want houses like their childhood homes. And just like all of that, they want their Flyers to be Broad Street Bullies. They want their Sixers to go “Fo-Fo-Fo.” They want their Eagles to bruise like Gang Green. And they want their Phillies to play like 1980.

They want their childhoods all over again.

And just like that, Philadelphians use Eagles and Phillies games as reasons to get drunk and forget about life. They tailgate hours before, fill themselves with beer and enter the stadiums in a zoned trance. Every action is amplified. Every moment is magnified. A Red Sox game, meanwhile, is an example of the high-brow. Try to buy two drinks at Boston Beer Works or the Cask & Flagon before the game. Just try. You’d better have four hours to burn. There is nowhere to tailgate. You need a ticket to enjoy a dog and a beer.

In Philadelphia, you can trade three cigarettes for a dog and a beer.

While the Bostonian middle class has an infallible sense of beauty and history still weaved within itself, the Philadelphia middle class is completely removed from the idea of beauty and history. Life is a struggle. Any free time is to be taken seriously. Bars, clubs and parties are great. Phillies and Eagles games? Those are dreamlike events.

The key reality

Have Red Sox fans treated opposing players poorly? Of course. Have Red Sox fans committed acts as supposedly evil as booing and pelting snowballs at Santa Claus? Sure. Have Boston college students caused “rampage!” in the streets? Absolutely.

But when the day is done, who revels in the twisted image they’re handed?

Will Philadelphia sports fans continue to deal with the Santa Claus story? Considering it has been 40 years since the incident, it’s unquestionably hard to tell. But in my eyes, as long as fans decide to forget their troubles when venturing down to Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field, the floggings won’t end. It’s part of the Philadelphia ethic: The tough, blue-collar, dirty-handed grouch who wants a fattening dinner and sports on the tube because the day was just too much to handle. And you can’t tell me that person has been counting down the days until his first Phillies game. Because that’s the day he can blow all his troubles away, if only for three hours.

Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com.

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For Mike Zagurski, Time To Prove Worth Again

Posted by Tim Malcolm, Sun, February 22, 2009 07:00 AM Comments: 18

He is the forgotten one. Pudgy and lucky, he sprouted from the cornfields of Nebraska and within two years, was staring down Barry Bonds, unfurling a pitch, and making the legendary outfielder fly out to right field.

Mike Zagurski had a cup of coffee — albeit strong, laced with unsuitable expectations in the midst of a cloudy pennant race. He swallowed it, but boy was it arduous. Before eliciting the fly ball from Mr. Bonds, Zagurski was ripped by those very same Giants, a three-run slapping that brought the country boy down to Earth. A rim-rocking like that might break a skeletal 24-year-old, but not Zagurski, who settled in with nine quality outings in his next 11. Maybe it was his meaty frame, his giddy cheekbones and wide eyes. Or maybe it was the “never say never” spirit that had so often defined Zagurski.

Born in Omaha, Neb., Mike Zagurski wasn’t a touted high schooler. He didn’t open any eyes, didn’t command scouts. For one, the prime heartland of America isn’t a place for brutish sluggers and lanky-armed pitchers. Pat Burrell was an Arkansas boy, but quickly acclimated to the bright sunshines of Miami. And Cole Hamels was a San Diego kid, a carefree spirit who was destined to stumble his way into greatness. Zagurski was a paunchy left-handed pitcher with more guffaw than gusto. Heck, his name didn’t stand out — the type of Polish moniker that rested nicely in your church newsletter, not on your scorecard. So it is no surprise he wasn’t drafted out of high school. And it is no surprise he wasn’t cajoled by a division one school. Or a division four school. Instead, Zagurski landed with the Blue Dragons of Hutchinson Community College.

This elite program wasn’t quite the funnel for big-league talent. Since 1991, the Blue Dragons spit out two professionals: Rick Croushore and Craig Dingman. The former went 5-11 with a 4.88 ERA over parts of three big-league seasons. The latter landed small stints in the majors and hasn’t been back since 2005. Unlike these players, Zagurski didn’t finish at Hutchinson, but moved to the University of Kansas. Because of his success there — which included a school record for strikeouts, the Phillies selected the “never say never” kid in the 12th round of the 2005 draft.

Zagurski managed to stay with the Phillies for two solid months, thanks to a horribly organized and performing bullpen that included retreads such as Jose Mesa and Kane Davis. Of the minions that shuffled in and out of the Citizens Bank Park bullpen, Zagurski was the most promising, carrying a devastating slider that offset a seemingly mid-level fastball. In small doses against left-handed hitters, Zagurski would prove elite, but in other situations? In 50 at bats, right-handed hitters were striking at a .340 rate. A classic one-trick pony.

The trick ended in Pittsburgh.

A string of terrible outings ended Aug. 18, 2007 in Pittsburgh, as Zagurski tore his hamstring, ending his season. The Phillies carried on, mainly because of the otherworldly surge of left-hander JC Romero, but Zagurski sat on the sidelines. His big opportunity had exploded in his face.

It was a charmed opportunity. The community college kid landed in Batavia upon signing in 2005, and climbed to Lakewood in 2006 thanks to strong strikeout rates. An even better rate in 2006 (75 strikeouts in 57 innings) propelled him to Clearwater for 2007, where his swift ascent began. Sixteen innings in Clearwater, seven innings in Reading, nine innings in Ottawa and suddenly the community college kid from the cornfields of Nebraska was pitching at Citizens Bank Park for a team competing for a division championship. When the lucky roll turned to blanks, one wondered how Zagurski could respond. He went from high school nobody to major league situational lefty in four years — how could he possibly feel now?

We still don’t know the answer. Zagurski seemed primed to return in 2008, but elbow pains turned to Tommy John surgery, which derailed his return to the point of questioning his viability as a minor league pitcher. And yet Zagurski survived that. Now he’s on the fields of Clearwater, practicing with the major league players as if nothing changed in two years.

But things did change.

For one, the Phillies are no longer scrounging for relief pitching. Sure they would like to add a left-handed arm, but it’s surely not a threatening matter. Instead, the Phillies have their solidified closer, two tested setup men, a couple strong middle relievers and various options. Now the Phillies are the gold standard — no longer the battle-weary collective of retreads and afternoon specials that surrendered hit after nail-killing hit.

For two, Zagurski hasn’t thrown a professional pitch since that fateful night in Pittsburgh. Does the slider still handcuff lefties? Can the fastball improve? These questions won’t be answered for a while, and it’s hard to believe the most positive of results. Once Zagurski had to prove he could improve upon his foundation; now Zagurski must prove he still has a foundation.

Despite all of this, Zagurski remains, running and tossing with the big leaguers. He stays optimistic that he can help the Phillies defend their world championship in 2009. He is a little lighter, a little swifter, but nowhere near the man who induced a fly out from the mighty Barry Bonds.

Things can change in a heartbeat. The Phillies might need Zagurski in April, much like the way they needed him desperately in May 2007. And all over again, the forgotten one will have to prove himself worthy of the challenge — that he can throw a fastball to set up his slider. That he even has a fastball and a slider. But heck, this won’t be the first … or fourth time Zagurski has had to prove himself worthy.

Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com.

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