Phillies balk at outside concerns over their age

Phillies balk at outside concerns over their age
February 15, 2013, 2:30 pm
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CLEARWATER, Fla – It has become a theme. They hear it each day and each day they address it. It’s unavoidable.

That’s what happens when the key cogs get worn down over time. People start asking questions about how well the machine functions, and whether it’s time to replace some parts. Put simply, a fair number of these Phillies have been asked about their advancing age. They’ve been asked about it a lot. Roy Halladay was asked about it. Michael Young was asked about it. Chase Utley was asked about it, too.

Halladay admitted that the day is coming, maybe soon, when “what’s ahead of me is not baseball, and I’m going to try to embrace that." Young insisted that “there’s a big difference between being old and being experienced.” And Utley added that they’re “all a year older, but age is a number.”

The best lines on the subject were delivered by Ryan Howard the other day. He was in a playful mood that afternoon. As Howard walked through the lunchroom toward the press conference table at Bright House Field, he grabbed a bottle of water and held it out like a fake microphone. He tried to get some people in the room to talk or sing into it, but most declined, leaving him to do a solo act instead.

The Big Piece is a Big Kid sometimes. It is part of his personality even if his childhood was long ago left behind in St. Louis, traded in for adult pursuits and big money contracts and the attendant pressure of being a big leaguer.

“I want to address this old thing,” Howard said, grinning wide, as though the premise amused him and he wanted it to amuse everyone else. “That’s all I hear, people talking about older and older and older and older. There’s a guy in this league, Jamie Moyer – I’m sure people told him he was this and that. But Jamie Moyer went out every year and showed people that he can play and he can get it done. I don’t buy into the old thing. It’s all about how young you feel inside and how you take care of yourself. ... If people want to call us old, that’s fine. But, I think, going out there this year, we’re going to show people that we’re not old.”

The Moyer fable is nice enough, but it doesn’t make the current Phillies any younger, and it doesn’t guarantee that they will have success as their careers funnel toward the inevitable conclusion. The entire projected starting infield is 32 or older. Howard is 33. Utley is 34. Jimmy Rollins is 34. Young is 36. Erik Kratz is 32. And Carlos Ruiz – who will return after a 25-game suspension – is 34. Among the pitchers, Cliff Lee is 34 and Halladay is 35. Setup man Mike Adams is 34 and closer Jonathan Papelbon is 32. You probably notice a pattern.

None of them are real world old, not really. But they spend most of their time in a world that’s different than the one the rest of us occupy – where grown men dress up in costumes and get paid well, very well, to play a game. That’s not a knock. It’s good work if you can get it. But in that world, time goes by faster, and the acceleration is most noticeable in physical decline and deteriorating performances. Those things can be delayed, but they cannot be avoided.

The question, and it is fair, is how long the Phillies will be able to hold off Father Time. He is an intractable old man, and he insists on the clock tick, tick, ticking forward.

“You can look at the clock all you want,” Howard said. “We’re focused on playing baseball. That’s it. If people want to look at a clock, and talk about this and talk about that, all we have to do is take it day by day and go out there. At the end of the season, hopefully we reign supreme, and we can bring that clock thing back up and you can tell me what time it is.”

It is the right attitude, of course. If Howard or any of them gave in and bought supermarket scooters and canes and life alert bracelets, it would be disappointing. Funny, but disappointing. What you want to see and hear from them while they’re still together is some fight.

“When [Howard] feels like that, I like that really,” Charlie Manuel said. “I think they still have good years left in them. I don’t think the door is closing on those guys. If they’re healthy, they can perform like they have in the past.”

It is possible. If they do as Manuel said and perform like they have in the past – the past being something closer to 2008 than 2012 – then these Phillies will have an excellent season, and maybe bring an end to the unnatural NL East reign of the Washington Nationals. That would be a wonderful thing for the team and the town, because even Howard admits that nothing lasts forever.

“I understand the window talk,” Howard allowed. “And there is a window of opportunity. But if you focus on the window closing, then you’re never letting that cool breeze come in, man.”