Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Star is Born

In a 10-2 Philly blowout Sunday Night a most-unlikely Philadelphia sports legend was born, as the more-likely hero brought the Phillies just a game shy of their second World Championship in the post-Rutherford B. Hayes era.

The Phillies picked Joe Blanton off the scrap heap after starting 2008 with a 5-12 record for Oakland. Since coming to Philly, however, he’s won five straight. But none of those wins will cement him in Philadelphia lore like his performance in Game 4. Blanton, after playing almost his entire five-year career in the American League, had a pathetic 2 for 26 record at the plate. But with two out in the bottom of the fifth, Blanton’s bat head ran into an Edwin Jones fastball and plopped it securely in the left field bleachers. It was the first extra base hit of his career and the first World Series home run by a pitcher since Ken Holtzman drove one out for Oakland 34 years ago.

With the usually ill-willed Philly fans firmly in his pocket, Blanton finished his night by striking out two in the top of the sixth to elevate his status in the city of brotherly love from 'footnote' to the 'never-have-to-buy-a-beer-in-this-town-ever-again' level.

But the emerging story in this World Series has been the return of NL MVP Ryan Howard’s gigantic bat. Rarely has the league MVP risen in the World Series to become it’s MVP, but Howard set the stage in the bottom of the 8th when he lambasted a Trever Miller fastball into the mob in the left field bleachers for his second homer of the night. Howard only had 3 RBI in the post season going into Game 2 but has had a timely turn around hitting .429 with 3 HR and 6 RBI.

What has become a most bizarre daily event in this year’s World Series is a horribly blown call by the league’s best umpires. In the bottom of the first, 3B Umpire Tim Welke missed seeing a tag on Philliy’s Jimmy Rollins as he was avoiding a rundown. To the naked eye it was an easy call and replays showed the tag clearly land long before Rollins made it to third. Although Rollins did end up scoring, the blowout erased Welke’s gaf. But in four World Series games, this crew has come up with six head-scratchers that, luckily for them, have had no impact.

But the town is ready for the ghost of Ben Franklin to ring the Liberty Bell as Phillies’ Ace Cole Hammels will take on Game 1 loser Scott Kazmir to try to put an end to the city’s 25-year championship drought.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who Needs a Centerfielder Anyway?

In one of the more bizarre finishes to a World Series game in recent memory, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz managed to get a bottom-of-the-ninth bases loaded infield hit to beat the Rays – even though virtually every player on the Tampa Bay roster was positioned on the infield grass.

After blowing a potentially historic start by Jamie Moyer, MLB’s oldest active player, the Phillies managed to push Eric Bruntlett across the plate in the ninth without even getting the ball to leave the infield. Rays pitcher J.P. Howell, who was brilliant in the 8th with a pickoff and two strikeouts, plunked Bruntlett to lead off the inning . Howell, who was eventually tagged with the loss, handed the ball to submariner Grant Balfour. Balfour immediately tossed a wild pitch that was compounded by a Nianar Nivarro throwing error tyring to nab the speedy Bruntlett taking second.

With no out and the winning run on third, Rays manager Joe Maddon didn’t just use some out-of-the box thinking – he lit the box on fire. The aptly named ‘Balfour’ was told to give the next two batters intentional passes loading the bases. Then Maddon pulled out a defense that is usually reserved for beer softball league teams who are one player short. With Balfour still on the mound, Madden brought Center Fielder B.J. Upton into the infield, leaving only Carl Crawford and Ben Zobrist to range the outfield by themselves. Ruiz then bounced a soft grounder towards Rays third baseman Evan Longoria who tried to scoop the ball over the charging Bruntlett. Had Bruntlett not been directly in line with the throw, Longoria could have made a clean catch and throw, but his unorthodox heave flew ten feet over the plate.

Just like that Philly had its first home World Series win in fifteen years which covered up the fourth blatant error by what should be the best umpiring crew in the biz. In the top of the 7th Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford chopped a short grounder that Moyers barely got a glove on. In a diving motion, Moyers shoveled the ball, glove-handed, to first baseman Ryan Howard who barehanded the toss for the out. It was the defensive play of the series except for the fact that first base umpire Tom Hallion blew the obvious call. While it didn’t cost the Phillies the game, Crawford did eventually score, which attributed that out to Moyer’s tally. It led to Moyer’s getting a no-decision in the most important game of his 22-year Major League career. It would have been a perfect closing to his baseball life as Moyer grew up in Philadelphia rooting for the Phillies.

Tomorrow night the city of Philadelphia will host the world as the Eagles have a home game and The Who will be playing in the same sports complex as the World Series. The Rays are sending rookie sensation Andy Sonnenstein to the hill against the Phillies Joe Blanton who managed to have a losing record this season (9-12), a rarity for a World Series starter.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Can a Bruthuh Buy a Hit!

Not even six months ago the idea that the Tampa Bay metro cluster would be doing back flips over their first ever World Series victory would have been laughable. But when David Price, Tampa Bay’s latest volunteer in their ever changing bullpen rotation, struck out NL MVP Ryan Howard in the top of the 9th, the Bay went crazy. Crazy with their historic victory, but also crazy with relief as the Rays dodged an unprecedented impotency streak of one of baseball’s most potent lineups. Howard managed to collect a few hits, but ’08 MVP Jimmy Rollins went for an O-fer as did Chase Utley, the best hitting second baseman in the bigs. But Howards two hits didn’t knock in any runs as the Phillies have gone a WS record 1 for 28 with RISP.

‘Big Game’ James Shields (OK, the only ‘Big Game James’ is Showtime’s James Worthy) managed to leave the game in the middle of the 6th with a lead, spreading out seven hits but giving up no runs to the historically inept Phillies. His Ray teammates did exactly what they were unable to do the night before and manufacture runs. Four of the Tampa Bay runs came not on timely hitting, but outs with RISP. Philly starter Brett Myers gave up three walks and was hurt by all of them.

But as odd as Philly’s untimely hitting was, it wasn’t the strangest part of the game. For the second night in a row 17-year Major League umpire Kerwin Danley, blew easy calls. Danley who missed a critical balk call in the Rays 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, pre-maturely rung up Tampa’s Rocco Baldelli on a check swing, before letting Baldelli or catcher Carlos Reliz appeal the call. Danley was embarrassingly overturned by 1st base umpire Fieldin Culbreth much to the dismay of Philly manager Jerry Manuel. Three innings later, Danley again blew an easy call when Tampa Bay reliever Dan Wheeler hit Rollin’s jersey with a tight fastball. Rollins should have been on first, but instead popped out. While none of Danley’s gafs appear to be game changers, they have all been potentially critical. In a sport where most officials can count the number of bad calls they make every season on one hand, the three in two nights is suspect – especially because of their basic nature. No one is accusing Danley of being on the take; you just wonder if his head is all the way in the game…

The series moves to Philly Saturday where sports most caustic fan base will have a shot at their city’s first title since Doctor J’s sixers won the NBA crown in ’83. Game 3 starters are Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza at 11-9, against the oldest player in the Bigs, Philly’s geriatric, yet effective starter, 16-7 Jamie Moyer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dude - You're in the Freaking World Series!

     Pitching to a lineup of complete strangers, Philly’s Cole Hamel threw seven strong to beat a struggling Tampa Bay 3-2 in game one of the 2008 World Series, the first ever played in Tampa’s Tropicana Field. In a rarity since the advent of Interleague play the two teams have absolutely nothing in common. They didn’t play each other this year and only one player, Tampa Bay reliever Trevor Miller, has ever played for the other organization. And Miller threw just 14 innings for the Phillies back in 2000, giving up 13 runs. Most players haven’t even played in the opposite league with the exceptions of Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs who collectively have played for every Major League manager since Connie Mack.
     So with no historical information to go on the managers are forced to simply go with what got them to the dance. What we got in this atypical World Series between perennial losers was a pretty typical game one. Two rested starters pitched well and two bullpens who were just aching to get out and pitch, gave up nothing.
     The only notable oddity was that Philly stranded 11 runners with NL RBI King Ryan Howard leaving the bulk of those runners on base. The Rays, who usually use speed to manufacture runs, had just two walks, no stolen bases and only one extra base hit besides Carl Crawford’s solo homer in the 4th.
     But arguably Tampa Bay’s biggest asset went missing last night. Their rabid fan base that waited 8 years with an empty stadium and another ten years miring in last place barely raised their eyebrows during the final four innings. Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden missed a golden opportunity to rile up the crowd in the bottom of the sixth when 18-year Major League veteran umpire Kerwin Danley blew an easy balk call. Hamel clearly stepped towards the plate before reversing course and throwing to first base to catch Carlos Pena getting a jump on a steal. Pena was easily thrown out at second while Madden barely raised his voice. Lou Pinella and Earl Weaver would have charged the field and gotten the crowd out of their seats, but Madden barely raised an eyebrow. The Rays were quickly out of the inning and Tropicana Field turned into a giant sarcaughagus. When Madden calmly approached home plate umpire Tim Welke after the inning he spoke as if he was 18 games behind first place, not four wins away from a World Championship.
     No reliever gave up more than a hit with Brad Lidge saving his 50th in a row, not counting his All-Star game loss which ironically was the only blemish in Eric Gagne’s 84-consecutive save streak. Tomorrow the Rays battle back with 14-8 James Shields going against the Phillies surprising post-season hitting star 10-13 Brett Myers.

World Series - If We Must...

      It is with great reluctance that I am watching the 2008 World Series, as both teams yank my chain. First of all the Phillies knocked off my beloved Brew Crew after our first successful playoff run in 26 years. My brother Dan and I were actually in the center field bleachers at County Stadium for Game 5 of the '82 Series, the last time the Crew played in October. Gorman Thomas hit a seventh-inning bases-clearing double to get the old building shaking like the patients up in the Woods VA bleachers behind the right field wall. Since then hit we’ve been wandering the baseball Sinai until this fall when the Phillies left us like Moses sitting outside the promised land.
      The Rays get under my skin because, in their first attempt at a playoff run, they were able to keep their pitching staff healthy into September. The Brew Crew have been slowly climbing back into prominence ever since Bud Selig washed his hands of his calamitous run as a Major League Baseball owner. But our pitching staff has had a September infirmary call with the same regularity as the Canadian goose migration.
      BUT… it is the World freaking Series and no matter what collection of egotistical rhoid-raged man-whores who have taken the field over the past 40 years, I keep watching. As it ends up the game of baseball is so freaking good that even Selig himself couldn’t ruin it. And once you get to the World Series the managers, who spend the season relying on statistics, toss out their hard drives and start watching the games. Every pitch counts; starters become relievers; pitchers become pinch runners; a streaky $40,000 late-season call-up might be the better call than the slumping $17 million MVP candidate.
      And just as sure as those geese will pass over the orange-clad hunters in Lambeau Field, one, if not both, of the catchers in the World Series will be an All-Star. This year it’s the Rays Dioner Navaro, a .295 hitter with a bionic right gun who managed the most unlikely pitching staff to ever take the October field. Nobody outside of Florida has ever heard of this guy and he’s going to be the weapon to deliver the Series to Tampa – even if he bats .150. The Phillies may have three MVP caliber players in their infield in Dwight Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, but in a short series, I’m going with the catcher. The hitters may slump, but a catcher’s brain will not.
      So let the games begin. It’s the born-agains of Central Florida versus the caustic omni-haters of Philadelphia. Baseball Armageddon. Bring it ON!