Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A tough loss, but good possibilities remain

No other team gained ground on the Phillies, and the wild card is within reach - especially with Howard's big bat.
By Claire Smith
For the Inquirer
When the Phillies took the field last night, the upper decks in right field and down the left-field line were sparsely populated.

Citizens Bank Park is not yet the place you absolutely have to be. But as fans started to drift in to fill the lower left-field bleachers with their fannies and the air with their cheers, you couldn't help but imagine the possibilities.

Do things right, the Phillies had to know, and the days of ambiguity might end, in the National League wild-card race in which they hovered one game out of first at the start of play last night. And in the hearts and minds of reticent Philadelphia sports fans.

All it would take was... what?

One more gutsy postseason guarantee by Mike Lieberthal?
One more series victory over a team the Phillies not only have to beat, but should beat?
One more gargantuan, game-winning blow by Ryan Howard during his march toward the still-magical 61-homer mark?

Someone to take charge after a tough loss - like last night's 11-6 pasting by the visiting Chicago Cubs?

A rare clunker from a starter (Jon Lieber, 21/3 innings, five earned runs, two incredibly hard-hit homers by Aramis Ramirez) sent most of the starting nine home without comment, including Lieber.

Makes you wonder about pressure, from within and without.

Still, the Phillies had to know, even in defeat that the signs remain good.

No team closed ground on them, nor do many seem to remain serious threats to their second-place wild-card standing.

Second, the Phillies did not go quietly, especially after Howard was plunked by Cubs starter Sean Marshall in the fourth inning.

That ignited the crowd of 31,101, which included about 4,000 walk-ups. For a time it ignited something within the Phillies, too, who closed within two runs after a pinch-hit grand slam by Jose Hernandez topped a six-run fourth.

It proved to be not enough. As Charlie Manuel reminded during batting practice, "We've got to go out there and take care of our business." Last night that did not happen. Not against a team thriving in the role of spoiler.

The Cubs, after all, took four of six from the wild-card-contending Dodgers and Reds last week. "They've been playing good ball, if I am not mistaken," centerfielder Shane Victorino said.

Still, even after rampaging around the bases, Chicago did not trample the Phillies' shot at October. And that goes a long way, even when you lose by five.

Possibilities buy you time.

Howard alone has the potential to form a one-man brass band down the stretch. That much was clear before the game when the Cubs' dugout, filled with players and coaches and the likes of former Phillies outfielders Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews, marveled at the major-league home-run leader during batting practice.

"Fifty-seven home runs - you've got to give him the MVP just because of that," said Matthews, a coach with the Cubs.

"I was getting a haircut today and they were calling Ryan Howard the black Babe Ruth," said Maddox. "And this was over in Camden, where there hasn't been much outreach.

"But when somebody puts up stats like that, everybody's paying attention."

Even after the big guy went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, the Phillies are still so counting on that. And still expecting more

Integrating past into the present

Tribute to Murtaugh raises money for future.

The Pittsburgh Pirates proved that good things can - and do - happen at a confluence when they brought home a World Series championship to Three Rivers Stadium in 1971.

Yesterday, the Phillies and Delaware County sought to borrow from that trailblazing team's legacy. The Pirates' cross-state rivals joined with the Delaware County Athletes Sports Hall of Fame to bring three good causes together when they gathered at the Renaissance Airport Hotel to honor Danny Murtaugh, the Chester native who managed the '71 Bucs, and raise money to revive baseball in inner cities, in general, and Murtaugh's hometown, in particular.

Murtaugh, who died in 1976, was feted for his vision, as well as a career that was comparable to Hall of Fame managers Tommy Lasorda and Earl Weaver.

"He led the Pirates to two World Series [titles] the Pirates had no business winning," said Bruce Markusen, author of 1971 Pirates, the Team that Changed Baseball.

Aside from the upsets of the Yankees in 1960 and the Orioles in '71, Murtaugh was also remembered for his refusal to bow to the unspoken belief that a preponderance of minorities should not be fielded on any given day.

For those reasons, Markusen declared: "Danny Murtaugh deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Murtaugh's son, Tim, recalling Sept. 1, 1971, the historic day when his father fielded an all-minority lineup, against the Phillies, amused the sold-out luncheon when he revealed that his father was color-blind - literally.

"It must have been an omen of things to come," Tim Murtaugh said after telling how his father's medical affliction was discovered when he attempted to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps in World War II.

All who gathered agreed that Murtaugh would have applauded the effort to revitalize youth ball in cities such as Chester. The Phillies were applauded for their work, especially when Rob Holiday, the Phillies' assistant director of scouting, told of the growth of the team's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative, which is known as RBI.

When the Phillies' RBI branch started in 1989, 200 children participated in what was then a neighborhood Puerto Rican Rookie League.

The Phillies now promote and sponsor RBI teams and leagues in which up to 7,500 children participate throughout the Delaware Valley.

"Baseball is a wonderful game," Dick Allen, the former Phillies slugger who is part of the Phillies' RBI vanguard, told the audience.

"To see kids having fun playing with one little baseball - no guns, no shootings, no knives... . When they're started young, they're on their way," Allen said.

Then, nodding toward a table filled with members of the Chester Red Sox - the only youth team in Chester and the beneficiary of the fund-raiser - Allen said, "When they get to these fellas' age, they're well on their way."

Fifteen-year-old Keyon Staples, an outfielder with the Red Sox, agreed.

"Some people don't understand why we play," he said. "They say baseball is a white person's sport, that blacks should play football and basketball. But they don't know about it. Baseball is fun, too, and I love it."