Thursday, March 3, 2011
Posted: 4:28 p.m. Updated: 5:13 p.m.
By Jim Salisbury
FORT MYERS, Fla. It wasnt all that long ago when the Phillies played in front of scores of empty seats at Veterans Stadium and could barely see daylight from the National League basement.
Now, they are baseball royalty, winners of four straight NL East titles, the 2008 World Series and, in case you hadnt heard, the Cliff Lee Free-Agent Sweepstakes.
Thursdays visit to the spring-training home of the Boston Red Sox was a reminder of how far the Phillies have come as a franchise.
Terry Francona, in his eighth season managing the Red Sox, presided over the Phillies during the dark days of 1997 to 2000, when the team had low payrolls, high loss totals and not a fraction of the talent it does now.
Theyve done a terrific job, Francona said of the Phillies, who led the majors with 97 wins last year and enter this season with a payroll of 160 million, one of the highest in the game.
Theyre in a different place now. They have the ballpark. Theyre a big market. And people are hungry for a good team. Those people deserve a team like that. Theyre rabid baseball fans. Its good for baseball. I dont know if Id want to be in the NL facing those pitchers every day, but theyve got a good thing going.
Those pitchers, of course, are Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.
On paper, its the best rotation in baseball.
But the best team in baseball belongs to Francona.
Thats what Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Thursday.
This is the best club in baseball, I think, he said, motioning toward the Red Sox. Their combination of speed, power, pitching, bullpen. They're a hell of a ball club. They don't have a whole lot of holes.
The Red Sox added perennial all-stars Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to their lineup in the offseason.
The Phillies added former AL Cy Young winner Lee to their rotation.
Two good teams got even better, and that led some to wonder if Thursdays Grapefruit League matchup between the two clubs the Phillies won, 2-0, as four pitchers combined on a one-hitter could be a little preview of a possible meeting in late October.
That prospect agreed with Francona.
If thats the case it means we got there, he said. Were excited about our club and Im sure the Phillies are too. But regardless, theres a right way to go about getting ready for the season and were trying to do that.
From Day 1 of spring training, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and his players have tried to tame expectations surrounding the team. They badly want to get to the World Series, but they know theres a lot of baseball to navigate and it has to be played well and with good health for that to happen.
Expectations are high and I look at that as good, Manuel said. Our guys want to go to the World Series. Thats where we want to go. I know Terry Francona. I imagine thats where he wants to go so Im sure our thinking is alike.
Managing high expectations can be a challenge, but it beats the alternative for Francona, who led the Sox to World Series championships in 2004 and 2007 and might be just one more title away from finding himself in the Hall of Fame someday.
Id much rather have high expectations than those days back in Philly where if we played well wed get to .500, he said. Id much rather have people think we have a good ballclub.
Francona recalled his time in Philadelphia, how, in 1997, he sent pitcher Calvin Maduro to Triple A at the end of spring training only to recall him a couple of days later and make him the No. 2 starter after injuries ravaged the staff. He mentioned that his handling of the Phillies bullpen was questioned by a Red Sox official when he interviewed for the Boston job before the 2004 season. After the interview he called the Red Sox official and read him some of the names that made up the Phillies bullpen in those days.
I dont know who any of those guys are, the official said.
Franconas current team has some of the most recognizable names in the game. The Sox spent 142 million in signing outfielder Crawford to a seven-year deal. The four-time AL stolen base champ hit .307 with 19 homers and 90 RBIs with Tampa Bay last season. Gonzalez, a Gold Glove first baseman, came in a trade with San Diego. He has averaged 32 homers and 100 RBIs the last five seasons with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .888.
Fantastic, Amaro said of the Red Sox offseason. Any time you bring that kind of talent to your club, you're doing a heck of a job.
Boston got a taste of the Phillies pitching staff on Thursday. Hamels led off the gem with four shutout innings. A one-hitter, even in spring training, is impressive. The stakes will be higher when the two teams meet again in June in an interleague series.
And after that, maybe theyll see each other again in October.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at firstname.lastname@example.org
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