Philly March Madness FINAL FOUR: (1) Mike Schmidt vs. (4) Ryan Howard

Philly March Madness FINAL FOUR: (1) Mike Schmidt vs. (4) Ryan Howard

Over the next few weeks at The700Level, we'll be posting poll matchups as part of our Philly March Madness competition.
Examine the cases of
the two fine Philadelphia athletes
below, and cast your vote at the
bottom as to which you think should
advance to the next round. And as
always, feel free to explain your
selection and/or debate the choices
in the comments section.

Today and tomorrow: The Final Four and the Finals. Here's hoping
for our biggest voter turnout yet as we finally name a greatest Philly
athlete of the last 30 years.



(1) Mike Schmidt

Previously Defeated: (16) Keith Byars, (9) Wilbert Montgomery, (4) Ron Hextall, (3) Brian Dawkins

Sports Writers Say:

He  was batting .203 with six homers, but when his glove also betrayed him,  Mike Schmidt knew it was time. With two on and two out in a 3-3 game in  San Francisco a week ago, the Phillies' third baseman booted a grounder  for what would have been the third out, a grounder he would have once  handled routinely. When the next hitter, Will Clark, smashed a  grand-slam homer, the Phillies were on their way to an 8-5 loss. And at  age 39, Mike Schmidt decided that he won't be playing baseball anymore.  It's baseball's loss, not his. Too many baseball fans yearn for the good  old days, as if nobody playing now could possibly be as good as the  old-timers. But too many baseball fans don't always appreciate the good  now days. Over nearly two decades, Mike Schmidt was the third baseman of  the good now days. While accumulating three National League most  valuable player awards, he hit 548 homers and was voted 10 Gold Gloves.  No other third baseman ever did what he did with both his bat and his  glove. Not Brooks Robinson, not Eddie Mathews, not Pie Traynor.

If  you saw Mike Schmidt play baseball, you can always say that you saw  baseball's best third baseman. Even the old-timers might not argue.

In  assembling an all-time team, third base had always been the thinnest  p

osition for candidates. Only seven are waiting for Mike Schmidt to join  them in 1995 at the Hall of Fame: the old-timers Frank (Home Run)  Baker, Fred Lindstrom and Jimmy Collins along with George Kell,  Robinson, Mathews and Traynor. The other positions always had many more  legends to choose from but Lou Gehrig dominated the first basemen,  Rogers Hornsby the second basemen, Honus Wagner the shortstops. In the  outfield, take any three: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Ted  Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose. Among the  catchers, judge Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella  and Johnny Bench. For pitching, consider Cy Young, Walter Johnson,  Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton,  Tom Seaver.

But at third base, it's no contest. As good as  Traynor, Mathews and Robinson were in other years, none of them matched  the complete package that Schmidt put together.

Season after season, Schmidt not only produced but he usually produced when the Phillies needed him to produce.

His  500th homer wasn't merely a ceremonial cannon shot. It won a game in  Pittsburgh. In the 1980 divisional race with the Expos, his home run in  Montreal clinched the title. In the World Series against the Kansas City  Royals that year he batted .381, hit two homers and drove in seven  runs. He was selected as the m.v.p. as the Phillies won the Series for  the only time in the franchise's 106-year history. He once hit four  homers in a game; he twice hit three homers in a game. He holds the  National League career third-base records for double plays, total  chances and assists. And in an era of free-agent soldiers of fortune, he  wore only the Phillies' uniform.

One reason was that the Phillies were wise enough to pay him what he  was worth: more than $17 million over his career, more than any other  baseball player in history except Dave Winfield.

Like every  player, Schmidt had his slumps. When the Phillies lost the 1983 Series  to the Orioles in five games, he batted .050, only one broken-bat single  in 20 official times at bat. Even so, he never hid or sulked. After  every game, he sat at his locker and answered questions, patiently,  thoughtfully.

''I'd like to hit a five-run homer or a six-run  homer,'' he joked after the fourth game. ''You ever see one of those?''  But his 1980 World Series ring had eased his burden as the Phillies'  most productive hitter, a burden that developed on the teams that lost  the National League Championship Series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. When the  Phillies won the 1980 Series, their manager was Dallas Green, now the  Yankee manager.

''Schmitty was neat to be around,'' Green  recalled. ''He made you work at making him understand the game and  there's nothing wrong with that.''

Schmidt also made opposing managers work. Charlie Fox, now a Yankee  coach, once managed the Giants, the Expos and the Cubs against the  Phillies.

''When you're a manager,'' Fox said, ''there's always  one player on the other team that you tell yourself, 'Don't let this man  beat me.' On the Phillies that man was Schmitty. With the game on the  line, you'd tell your pitcher, 'Get this guy out, then we'll walk  Schmitty, and get the next guy.' But when you did pitch to him, you  never knew how. Just when you thought you were getting him out inside,  he'd start hitting the outside pitch to right center.''

At 6 feet 2  inches and 205 pounds, Schmidt was also considered one of the Phillies'  best baserunners. He stole 174 bases, with a high of 29 in 1975.

''He  stole a base when the Phillies needed it, usually late in the game,''  Fox said. ''He lulled you early in the game. In the third inning, the  fifth inning, he'd take a little lead and never even make a move to  steal. In the seventh or eighth or ninth when the Phillies needed a run,  he'd take that same little lead and you'd figure he wasn't going  anywhere and boom, he'd steal.''

Mike  Schmidt did it all. And he did it with a quiet style that embellished  his stature. If you saw him play, you can always say you saw baseball's  best third baseman. -Dave Anderson, New York Times, 1989


(4) Ryan Howard

Previously Defeated: (13) Jon Runyan, (5) Pete Rose, (1) Reggie White, (3) Donovan McNabb

Sports Writers Say:

The sky over St. Louis looked as gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal when Ryan Howard hit the most memorable moon shot of his career. He was 12, and his Little League team was playing a squad from Jefferson City. Howard, then known simply as Hurt, already had prodigious power from the port side. "When he made contact, it was like, Wow!" recalls his twin brother, Corey. "His home runs were loud."

Late in the game, Hurt turned on a chest-high heater. According to family lore the ball soared over the infield, over the outfield, over a 20-foot chain-link fence in rightfield, over a parking lot and, depending on the storyteller, struck the wall of a Red Lobster, the base of a sign outside a Red Lobster or a Red Lobster sign's red lobster.

Thirteen years later Howard still savors the swat. "It was my first actual bomb," recalls the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman. "I watched it with a little awe." An equally awed sportswriter recently paced off the distance b
etween home plate and the building. If the yarn is true, Ryan's blast traveled at least 430 feet.

Laid end to end, Howard's homers this season have traveled an estimated 4 1/4 miles, the longest going 491 feet. He had a major-league-leading 56 to go along with a major-league-leading 138 RBIs, including 41 in August, the most by any player in any month since Frank Howard had 41 in July 1962. He also pounded 14 homers and hit .348 last month to single-handedly launch the Phillies into wild-card contention. If Howard reaches 60 homers, he'll become only the sixth player to accomplish the feat. "To hit 50 is really something," says Philadelphia closer Tom Gordon. "Sixty is almost beyond comprehension. It's magnificent."

To date, the Magnificent Five includes Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927, and Roger Maris, whose 61 came in '61. The rest of the roster-- Mark McGwire (65 and 70), Sammy Sosa (63, 64 and 66) and record-holder Barry Bonds (73)--is sullied by suspected steroid use. Should Howard pass Maris's 61, a crusade is afoot to anoint him King of the Juiceless Dinger. Asked if he would take pride in such a title, he says, with a hint of diffidence, "I would."

Then again, Ryan is dispassionately modest about his chances of even attaining 60. "If it happens, it happens," he says with a small shrug. "If I were to do something like that and then wake up and reflect on the season one day at home in the off-season, I wouldn't believe it."

Baseball has seldom seen anything quite like Howard. The hulking 6'4" 250-pounder looks like he was poured into his uniform and forgot to say when. As if stanchioned to the bag at first, he often seems as animated as the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia's City Hall. "Ryan does get excited," insists Philadelphia reliever Geoff Geary. "His excitement is just not extreme." To prove a point, Geary shows a video he filmed surreptitiously on his cellphone. Facing his locker before a game, wired into an iPod, Howard, arms akimbo and hips swiveling, does a wobbly rumba. "That's Ryan's groove dance," says Geary. "He gets down to get loose."

Howard is only truly loose in the clubhouse, where he greets teammates with a dozen handshakes. "He's got big old Mice and Men hands," says Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You know, like the ones Lenny had. There's a lot of strong in those hands."

You need strong hands to dispatch fastballs into the troposphere. "Ryan uses an inside-out swing for wallburners to left, but his homers to center and right have a trajectory unlike anything I've ever seen," says pitcher Jamie Moyer, a veteran of 20 seasons. "They start out like routine flies and carry and carry and carry until they land 30 rows back in the bleachers. They're absolutely majestic."

At Citizens Bank Park, Howard's most regal blasts alight in the upper deck in right, a veritable petri dish of costumed Phillies fan clubs, from Flash Gordon's "Superheroes" to Chase Utley's " Utley's Uglies." Three clubs vie for Howard supremacy: the leonine-garbed "Ryan's Lions," the Homer Simpson--masked "Homer's Homers" and " Howard's Howards," who sport bowl cuts like Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. All chant "M-V-P!" when their hero steps to the plate.

"Phillies fans go crazy for the shut-up-and-play type," says Jerry Getz, a Philly sports-radio gadfly known as Jerry on the Mobile. "Howard seems like a quiet, clean-cut John Kruk, an accessible, almost jolly guy who plays the game like he loves it. He's the anti-T.O."

In the Phillies' dugout Howard is called everything from Rhinoceros to Man-Mountain to One-Man Gang. The consensus favorite, however, is John Coffey, after the gentle gargantuan in The Green Mile. "John Coffey was a big guy and a good, kind person," says Howard. "I act like that sometimes, too, just to throw people off."

By most accounts it's no act. "Ryan has always been even tempered," says Corey, his fraternal twin. "The only thing that sets him off is hearing people say he can't do things. They've said he can't hit lefties, he can't hit off-speed pitches, he can't hit for a high average. Whatever they've said Ryan can't do, he's gone out and done."

Their father, Ron, a project manager for IBM in St. Louis, forbade the word can't in his home. So Ryan set out to show his old man he could. At Lafayette High he played defensive end, power forward, first base and trombone in the marching band. He played each of them ably but baseball best. Two years ago Howard, who was drafted by the Phils in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Southwest Missouri State, hit 46 homers for two farm teams. All that stood in his way in Philadelphia was power-hitting first baseman Jim Thome and his six-year, $85 million contract. "I'd heard Ryan hit bombs," Rollins says. "But I figured there were 85 million reasons I wouldn't see him anytime soon."

The following spring Howard auditioned in left, flunked and was sent back to Triple A. "The Phillies traditionally give you one shot," Rollins says. "If you're demoted after that, you might as well cancel Christmas."

For Howard, Christmas came in July. When Thome's season was cut short by injuries, Howard--the International League leader in hitting (.371), on-base percentage (.467) and slugging (.690) at the time--got another chance. He made the most of it, mashing 22 homers (10 in the final month) to help propel the Phils to within a game of the playoffs.

Last November the Phils settled their first base question by trading Thome to the White Sox. Questions about Howard, however, remained to be settled. Though he was Rookie of the Year in 2005, for example, he batted only .148 against southpaws. At week's end he was up to .283 and had hit 15 of his homers off lefties. "Two years ago he had raw power, but he tried to cover the entire strike zone," says Astros third base coach Doug Mansolino. "The difference now is patience and selectivity: He only swings at pitches in his strike zone." (His strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 3 to 1 last season to under 2 to 1 this year.)

Pity the pitcher who trespasses in Howard's zone. Last week Houston's Russ Springer tried to bust him with a cutter up and in. Howard swatted the righthander's pitch off the face of the second deck. "Lefthanded batters are supposed to foul that off or hit it on the ground," says Astros infielder Aubrey Huff. "I don't think there's another big leaguer who could have hit it out."

The crack of Howard's 34 1/2-ounce bat was easy on Rollins's ear. "When he connected, it was loud, like somebody had turned up the volume," says Rollins. "It was a beautiful sound, and I knew the ball would be leaving the yard." -Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated, 2006

    Who should advance to the next round?Market Research

Elite Eight Results:

(1) Julius Erving (53.6%) over (2) Chase Utley (46.4%)
(2) Allen Iverson (68.1%) over (5) Brian Westbrook (31.9%)
(1) Mike Schmidt (51.6%) over (3) Brian Dawkins (48.4%)
(4) Ryan Howard (72.9%) over (3) Donovan McNabb (27.1%)

 

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel's tenure in Philadelphia wasn't characterized by a whole lot of winning, but he'll still likely be remembered fondly by Sixers fans as being one of the original members of the process.

It's always an emotional time when a fan favorite departs for another city and a new team instead of seeing the championship aspirations many had for them in Philly through to fruition.

Noel posted an emotional message to his Twitter account on Thursday evening thanking the city of Philadelphia and its fans for the support they showed him through the ups and downs. 

The tweet contained the hashtag #Philly with a couple of exclamation points with a screenshot of a note that read:

What an exciting journey it’s been… To have such an amazing city embrace a kid from Boston coming out of Kentucky the way y’all did, is something I’ll truly never forget. And even through the ups and downs I never doubted the love here and that won’t change. Thank you to everybody that’s believed in me and supported through #TheProcess.

Love! -NN4

He posted the same message on Instagram as well.

Noel was traded earlier in the day to the Dallas Mavericks for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a conditional first round pick that will likely turn into two second round picks.

Bryan Colangelo will address the media on Friday morning to discuss his rationale behind moving Nerlens.

Related:

>>Every reason why the Nerlens Noel trade was unjustifiable 

>>Video: Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid say their goodbyes 

>>Joel Embiid reacts to Nerlens trade on Twitter: 'Trust it'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Nerlens Noel emerged from the trainer’s room in a red sweatshirt and made his rounds of handshakes and hugs. It would be his last time in the Sixers' training complex as a member of the team, marking the end of the longest-tenured player’s stay in Philadelphia.

The Sixers traded Noel to the Mavericks on Thursday for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a top-18 protected first-round pick, according to a source (see story). He went through a portion of practice and was removed from it because of the deal. 

Noel’s now former teammates had a strong reaction to his departure. 

“Nerlens, he’s my guy,” Joel Embiid said. “He’s been my best friend since I got to Philly and I’m happy for him. He wants to start. I think in Dallas he’s going to get the chance to start and they’re going to re-sign him and they’re going to pay him a lot of money. Here it was kind of hard for him to start unless they were starting us together. But I’m happy for him. He’s going to get the chance he wanted.”

Noel’s future with the Sixers had been in question for two years as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Last season, the team struggled to find a way for him and Jahlil Okafor, both true centers, to play together. This season, the logjam was magnified when Embiid made his debut and took over the starting role. 

Noel candidly spoke out about the overcrowding at the beginning of the season but that situation was sidetracked when he missed 23 games because of injury. Once he returned, he quickly was on the short end of minutes. 

“I need to be on the court playing basketball,” Noel said in mid-December. “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes. Like, no, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. They need to figure this s--- out.”

The Sixers did figure out his role, later making him the defensive leader of the second unit as Okafor became the odd man out. The Sixers also considered the possibility of pairing Noel and Embiid in the starting lineup, as they did with Embiid and Okafor, but that experiment played out only over a handful of minutes. 

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” Embiid said of not playing more alongside Noel. “I thought we should have tried that a little bit more. I think the few times we did, it actually looked pretty good offensively and defensively.”

Of the bigs, it seemed like Okafor would be the one moved at the deadline after being held out of two games because of trade talks. In the end, it was Noel as the one to go on Thursday. 

“He’s one of my favorite players here,” Dario Saric said. “He’s always ready for jokes, he’s always ready to enjoy every moment.” 

Noel was the only player remaining from Brown’s first season as head coach with the Sixers. Brown could not comment on the Noel trade because it was not official at the time he addressed the media. 

Ilyasova leadership missed
On Wednesday night the Sixers dealt Ersan Ilyasova to the Hawks for Tiago Splitter, a 2017 second-round pick and 2017 second-round pick swap rights. Even though Ilyasova played only 53 games for the Sixers, the veteran leader left his mark.

“He was a consummate pro,” Brown said. “He helped teach our young guys about that professionalism and helped contribute to our culture. He was good. You add those things up and we’re going to miss him.” 

Ilyasova’s departure affects those who played with him and behind him. Embiid credited Ilyasova for stretching the floor when they were in the starting lineup together. 

Saric, though, is perhaps the most impacted by the trade. Saric moved to the second unit when Ilyasova took over the starting role. He learned from his fellow international power forward, who helped him adjust to the NBA on and off the court. Saric is likely to get the nod as a starter. 

“For me, it’s hard,” Saric said. “I lost in Ersan some kind of mentor.” 

Brown also plans to play Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes at power forward at times, as well. If Covington slides over from small forward, Brown eyes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas as players who could fill in at the three spot. 

The Sixers will resume activity on Friday morning for shootaround ahead of their game against the Wizards. They will approach that contest without familiar faces on the court. 

“I lost two good friends,” Saric said. “But this is the NBA. This is part of the business, part of the job.”