The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

Two people who are not me.

It's not easy to take your pants off in the driver's seat of a 1999 Nissan Altima. But for some reason, that's what I chose to do on a cold, January morning, in the parking lot of a local suburban high school. Relax, the lot was pretty much empty -- except for one beat-up station wagon that belonged to the janitor -- and I wasn't so much taking OFF my pants as I was CHANGING them. You see, I had just purchased a fresh pair of nylon black track pants, because I, my good friends, am a 6th grade girls basketball ref.

There are few jobs in the world more thankless than being a ref. Friend to no one, enemy to all, wearer of ridiculous all-black sneakers. You never really get used to the outfit, going out in public looking like a loon, but you do it anyway, because you respect the game (and are desperate to make a little extra cash to keep your wife off your back).

Saturday was the opening day of the season and I arrived at my destination 45 minutes ahead of time. I did this partially because I grew up being late to everything, leading me to become a very punctual adult, but mostly because I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take a pregame smash.

Plenty of great seats still available.

Anyone who has ever showed up to a public school on a Saturday morning, when the wind is howling and ice covers the walk, knows that you never choose the right door to enter in on your first attempt. It's impossible. Pull the handle, locked. Go to the next one, locked. Then panic starts to creep in, and you try another, C'MON, and another, WHAT, and then you start to wonder if you're even at the right place. Is there an auxiliary gym? What time does this start? But then eventually one opens and the heat hits your face and all is right in this stupid, cruel world.

I was lucky enough to get in on my third try, and then quickly found a boys bathroom emptier than a cave (one of the benefits of reffing girls instead of boys). There, I handled my business and sent a few tweets, and after tucking in my shirt and testing out my whistle, I walked toward the gym with the sound of pounding basketballs guiding the way.

As game time approached, the players trickled in. One by one, they showed up with their parents, with basketballs bigger than their heads. Most wore fancy new sneakers -- a lot of Nike Kevin Durant's -- and those super-duper-padded socks, the $16 Nike jawns with the dotted lines on the heel that every mustachioed Delco teenager asked for this Christmas. One girl practiced doing splits at midcourt.

Meanwhile, I did some light stretching (which was pretty much unnecessary) while yucking it up with the kid at the scorer's table. In charge of the scoreboard that day was 14-year-old Max, a little guy who had a giant cowlick on the back of his head, making it obvious that his mom had just woke him up. He was a nice enough kid (his hair was honestly incredible) even though he had those weird colored braces that no parent should ever let their child wear. Max told me about his friend Kyle who was supposed to do the book, but he couldn't come because he had the flu, or was in Maine or something, I couldn't really follow because Max's hair was so amazing and he had so much food in his braces. Soon after, another guy came over wearing all-black New Balances. He introduced himself as Cliff, my new best friend.

Not only my best friend, my only friend. Sure, Max was cool, and he snorted when he laughed, but Cliff was my homeboy. Over the next three games, we would go to war together -- getting yelled at by coaches, questioned by parents, backing up each other's calls -- officiating together in a united front.

Soon the warmup buzzer sounded and it was time to tip off (something that was obvious to only me, Cliff and maybe three other people). The coaches and players just kinda stood there until we told the coaches to pick their starters. Then, ten pre-adolescent girls walked out on the floor, looking confused and nervous and absolutely adorable. The Black team immediately set up in a 2-3 zone defense. Like why even bother to jump it up, right? So I had to tell them to come to half court. "All right girls, let's jump it up," I said, but this meant absolutely nothing to them. I might as well have said, "All right girls, flibble-dee-floo!" So I tried again, "Need someone to jump here," but nothin. Eventually I had to coax the girls to come toward me. "Okay, we need a player from the Pink team and a player from the Black team. We're gonna have a jump ball. I'm gonna throw the ball up, and you're gonna try to tip it to a teammate. Are you wearing a necklace? You have to take that off. No jewelry," then all of a sudden 10 girls ran off the court, climbing into the stands to find their parents to help them take off their earrings. Eventually they came back and two girls finally stepped up. Cliff gave me a nod. Max gave me a wink with both eyes. We were ready to go. The season was about to begin.

Textbook defensive stance.

The key to success in 6th grade girls basketball is having a girl who can dribble. Just one, that's all you need. One girl who can successfully take a basketball and bounce it against the ground, over and over and over again. On this particular day, the Pink team had a STUD, a short girl with a side pony who cut through the defense like a hungry squirrel. She brought the ball up, popped it around, stole it from her teammates, and occasionally drove to the hoop and made a few bankers. She ended up scoring 14 of her team's 18 total points. I'm 95% sure she was a Lobo.

The Black team, they weren't so lucky. They had one redheaded girl who could kind of handle the ball, although every time down the floor she picked up her dribble. She also had no idea how to pivot, and sometimes bent over with the ball, hugging it tightly like she had the world's worst stomach ache.

"You need to pass the ball, okay? You can't just hold it. Or I'm gonna have to call Five Seconds on you."

She nodded and said "okay," and seemed to understand, but frankly I'm not sure she spoke English.

Honestly though, I'm being a little harsh. The girls were not that bad. A few could dribble and catch and rebound, and some could actually run up and down the floor without crashing into the scorer's table. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, some even had decent instincts and could read the flow of the game. Still, it was painful to watch, and even harder to ref, because their movements were so all over the place.

In my short time reffing (I've been doing it for two years) I've realized the key to making the right call is just to act like you're right, all the time. No matter what happens, or what you may or may not have seen, just make a call in the most convincing way possible. "OFF BLACK'S KNEE! PINK BALL!" with very dramatic arm motions. Then grab the rock and get ready to inbound. Was it really off Black? Who knows. There's no reason to live in the past.

I have no doubt that it'd be easier to ref a Final Four game in a hostile arena than run up and down the floor with 6th graders. With boys (or men, or women at a higher skill level) the game is fluid, and you can read the action and anticipate players' movements. With 6th grade girls, it's a non-stop tornado. Heaps of girls crashing into one another, tumbling over, and slamming onto the ground. You have never heard a thuddier thud than the thud created by a 12-year-old girl on a one-woman fast break. There's no grace. No ability to control their bodies. Just a bunch of young women falling to earth like a sack of potatoes. I've never even seen (or heard) a sack of potatoes hit the ground before, but I can guarantee you that it's the perfect analogy for this particular situation.

The last few minutes are always a shit show. In this particular matchup, Black had come back, cutting the lead to three points in the final two minutes. This caused every person in the gym to lose their minds. At one point, I looked to the Pink team's bench and a girl was just jumping in place, spinning around like goddamn ballerina. A father in the stands kept screaming, "THAT'S HOW WE DO. THAT'S HOW WE DO." He was wearing khakis. On three straight possessions, the players just took the ball and jacked it. Not even looking, they just inbounded the ball and hurled it toward the basket. One girl took a closely contested 35-foot fadeaway jumper. Not one shot came close. One airball actually bounced under the hoop and landed in a bucket. Not THE bucket, not the bucket they were supposed to be shooting at, but a bucket that was sitting on the floor against a nearby wall. I don't even know why the bucket was there. Maybe there was a leak in the roof? Or maybe the janitor left it? Either way, at one point toward the end of the game, there was a basketball stuck in a bucket.

As the clock ticked down to 1:15 left in the 4th, a crazy woman started screaming, "STOP THE CLOCK. STOPPPP THEEEE CLOCCCKKKKK, OMG STOPPPP THE CLOCKKKKKKKKK." She actually said, "OMG." Like, those words actually came out of her mouth. And of course Max, who is a CHILD, stopped the clock because an adult told him to. The thing was, that in this particular league, the clock only stops during the last minute of the game. So I had to blow my whistle, calm everyone down and explain to the parents that the clock would run until the last minute. The screaming woman didn't get it. "It IS the last minute!" she said, which made me question if I knew what a minute was. Finally, I realized that she was in fact that crazy one, which made me strangely more attracted to her.

In the game's final moments, Pink's point guard hit a game clinching three (YEAH, AN ACTUAL THREE) that put the game out of reach and saved me and Cliff (and Max) from three more minutes of hell overtime.

After the buzzer, the girls all shook hands, while Cliff and I collapsed against the bleachers.

"What a whirlwind, huh?" Cliff said.

Absolutely bonkers, I replied.

Then we both just sat there in silence. Reflecting on the game, hoping we kept it fair, wondering why Max took his shoes off.

"You know where the bathroom's at, Ev? I gotta take a Hulkster."

Yes I do, best friend.

I certainly do.

Follow The Evster @TVMWW.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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