What the World Series Means to me

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Carlos Beltran finally gets his shot to leave his mark on a World Series

As a summer sport it seems somewhat ludicrous that the finale of the baseball season, the showpiece event, takes place towards the end of October when the air is crisper and the days are shorter. It’s not uncommon to see supporters wearing gloves and scarfs as baseball’s elite duel it out on the diamond; yet there’s something symbolic about a pitcher blowing on his hands to warm them up while in the midst of a shut out, or a hitter in long sleeves belting a crucial, career defining home run. The World Series is a week long feast of drama and sport rolled into one, and it’s an event which has provided me with a host of memories over the years, both good and bad.

I was just two years old when the Philadelphia Phillies lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays in heartbreaking fashion in 1993, on Joe Carter’s famous walk off home run. Thankfully I’m not old enough to recall that memory, but I’ve been informed by my Dad and my Brother that while they were watching that series I was in front of the television with them at some ridiculous hour, so I guess you could say that was my first exposure both to baseball and the World Series.

Thankfully I caught the bug and became hooked, and the first October classic I vividly recall watching was the post-9/11 duel between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees in 2001. New York as a city was grieving following the terrorist atrocities of September 11 and its people had gained tremendous respect for the way they had fought to rebound from the attacks,  showing the terrorists that  they would not be beaten. However despite the fact New York was mourning the Diamondbacks were the neutrals choice for the series, a franchise spawned in 1997 who were enjoying their first taste of baseballs grandest stage. Although Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim blew two consecutive saves in games four and five the Diamondbacks won the series 4-3, with Luis Gonzalez hitting a walk-off single off Yankees legendary closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of game seven. In game four Derek Jeter had hit a walk-off home run for New York after the clock had passed midnight and October had been left behind, earning him the nickname “Mr. November” in a tribute to former Yankee great Reggie Jackson whose post-season excellence saw him labelled “Mr. October”. The 2001 series would go down in history as one of the best ever, in equal measure because of the emotional backdrop and the unparalleled drama produced on the field.

In 2003 the Yankees were back in the classic, this time taking on another newly created franchise; the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. This was the series where a then 20-year old Miguel Cabrera hit a crucial home run off of Roger Clemens, at the time regarded as a lock for the hall of fame. Clemens’ reputation has since been tainted by admissions of PED use, nevertheless Cabrera’s blast has remained iconic. The Yankees went on to lose the series again, this time by a score of 4-2, with the underdog Marlins heavily favoured by anyone who wasn’t a Yankees fan. By this series I had established that the Yankees aren’t very well liked outside of New York, mainly because of their unrelenting success and the bandwagon jumping fans their success had created. In many ways they’re the baseball equivalent of Manchester United. The team themselves haven’t done much, if anything at all, to inspire such loathing. However the fact that the majority of the teams support exists outside of their respective cities makes them easy to despise.

Five years later was the pinnacle for me personally as a baseball fan, when in 2008 the Phillies won their first World Series since 1980 and their first championship in my lifetime. Cole Hamels was magnificent, earning MVP honours for his pitching prowess. Pat Burrell drove in the series winning run with his last ever hit in a Phillies uniform. And closer Brad Lidge completed his flawless season by striking out Eric Hinske, sinking to his knees in euphoric celebration. The Phillies came up short of a repeat the following year, being denied by those damn Yankees in six games. However I still have fond memories of that years classic, almost as fond as the previous year, including Cliff Lee’s two gems and Chase Utley slugging two home runs off of New York ace C.C Sabathia in game one at the new Yankee Stadium.

The World Series has produced heroes. It’s produced villains. It was even the scene of a natural disaster in 1989, when an earthquake hit California as the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants were about to square off in the ‘Battle by the bay’. This years contest between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals is an opportunity for a new generation to be inspired by some October brilliance, whether it’s an awe inspiring catch by Boston’s Shane Victorino or a complete game shut out spun by St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright. One player I’m particularly rooting for is Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals slugger who owns one of the best post-season resumes in baseball history. In a quirk of fate he’s never made it the the fall classic before, and at 37-years old this could well be his one and only opportunity to make his mark on the biggest stage of all. Beltran’s in the midst of a borderline hall of fame career – if he rises to the occasion like Gonzalez, Jeter and Cabrera before him there’ll be no borderline about it. The drama starts tonight. Don’t miss out.

Game One is live on FOX at 19.30 ET in Boston.

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A Tribute to Charlie Manuel

Copyright Philly Sports Central

Copyright Philly Sports Central

On Friday afternoon Charlie Manuel stepped down as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies after the team informed him of their decision not to renew his contract beyond the end of the 2013 season. Manuel had just won his 1,000th game as a manager and he sits atop the Phillies all time list for managerial wins, in addition to having lead the team to its second World Series title back in 2008. Although Manuel wasn’t widely expected to continue in his role for next season the timing of the move was a surprise and didn’t allow Phillies supporters to show their appreciation of Manuel’s efforts before he stepped down. I want to show my gratitude for Manuel’s work during his nine seasons with the team, however, and will do so in this article. I could use these words to explain why the teams poor performance is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s fault as opposed to Manuel’s, but I’ll save that rant for another day.

When the Phillies hired Manuel at the conclusion of the 2004 season the move was greeted with caution and indifference. Manuel had enjoyed mild success with the Cleveland Indians towards the end of the twentieth century, largely thanks to a devastating offence containing sluggers such as Jim Thome and Manny Ramierez. Manuel received praise for his work as a hitting guru while with the Indians, and had been working with the Phillies as a hitting instructor and special assistant to the GM before he was hired as Larry Bowa’s replacement. The Phillies were coming off a season in which they had at one point led the National League east, only to be pegged back by the Atlanta Braves and also lose out on wild card entry into the post season. It was widely thought that Manuel was primarily hired because of his relaxed, laid back approach that would hopefully get the best out of the same players who had failed to respond to Bowa’s fierce intensity. Manuel’s relationship with Thome was also cited as beneficcial, and it was hoped that he could get the best out of the aging first baseman. However Thome was injured halfway through the 2005 season and in his place a young Ryan Howard emerged with a Rookie of the Year season that would prompt Thome’s trade to the Chicago White Sox later that winter.

History would eventually tell us that Manuel did indeed bring out the best of what had previously been an under-achieving core of players. Jimmy Rollins productivity reached new heights, including his legendary MVP season in 2007, Pat Burrell became a consistent run producer until his departure following the 2008 World Series, Chase Utley evolved into the best second baseman in the game and Ryan Howard erupted into an elite power hitter, winning the NL MVP in 2006 thanks to a 58 home run outburst. Manuel was also responsible for Jayson Werth’s surprise development into a top-tier outfielder, with Werth having struggled to make an impact in the majors before the Phillies picked him up on the cheap. Carlos Ruiz was another Manuel success story as the catcher peaked in 2012 hitting .330, after he had battled to hit above the Mendoza line during the opening couple of years of his major league career. Of course, Manuel was fortunate to inherit such talented hitters to work with. But he succeeded where others had failed and the strength of the lineup was what helped the Philliies reach the post season after a 14 years absence 2007 and win the World Series for the first time since 1981 in 2008.

As the Phillies became perennial NL east winners from 2007 until 2011 the teams hitting gradually regressed to league average and pitching became its strength. Cole Hamels was joined in the rotation by first Cliff Lee and then Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, creating ‘the four aces’. Manuel often let all four pitch deep into games, and while it took little in the way of managerial innovation he deserves praise for simply letting his players do their jobs and not ‘over-managing’.

Perhaps Manuel’s finest moments came during the teams memorable 2008 season. While the lineup scored plenty of runs the pitching staff relied heavily on Hamels and newly acquired closer Brad Lidge. Lidge went a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities that year as Manuel used him almost exclusively for one inning at a time. However, when it came to the National League championship series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Manuel decided the time was right in game four to bring Lidge in for a four out save, which he duly completed. In the same game Manuel used Matt Stairs as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, when the veteran lefty promptly launched a solo bomb to break a 1-1 tie. During that play-off run Manuel adjusted his lineup against left-handed pitching by moving Chase Utley into the number two hole as opposed to hitting third, another move that came off when Utley hit a two run homer in the first inning of World Series game one against then Tampa Bay southpaw Scott Kazmir. All of these moves may look small, and they were, but as a major league manager it’s often the minor moves that make all the difference and in this case they certainly did.

During that same play-off run Manuel’s mother passed away. Several stories about their relationship emerged, including how she would check up on him every day to find out how his teams were getting on. The story added a human element to a statistical sport, and further highlighted Manuel’s popularity with those close to him – including his players, and made the teams achievements that October even more remarkable. Manuel wasn’t a tactical magician, though he had his moments, and he isn’t the most eloquent speaker during press conference

s. He doesn’t have Bowa or Ryne Sandberg’s pedigree as a player. He is incredibly popular in Japan for his time spent playing there, where he excelled after a middling major league career. But his hitting expertise in addition to his calm demeanour helped get the best out of his players during the most successful era in Phillies history. He won with teams that hit. He won with teams with great pitching. And he won more games than any  other manager in the Phillies long history which began in 1883. From an unheralded hire in 2004 Manuel became a Philadelphia legend. And for that, he deserves mine and every other Phillies fans appreciation.