Observations from Wednesday's Phillies Winter Tour media session in Reading. Guests include Phillies GM Pat Gillick, manager Charlie Manuel, veteran closer Tom Gordon, center fielder Aaron Rowand, homecoming king Ryan Howard, and a dizzy blogger.
It's 4 p.m. Thursday and my head is still spinning.
The media session, my first crack at access to the men I write essays about five times a week, was everything I expected and more, amazing in both scope of the questions being asked by reporters and the incredible depth in the answers provided by players.
About 15 reporters from newspaper, radio and television were in attendance, so access was pretty wide open. My strategy was to stay out of the way of the papers and television crews and try to ask my kinds of questions if time permitted. Making the rounds, I heard very few questions about starting pitching, Arthur Rhodes or Mike Piazza. Instead, these were fundamental baseball questions designed to bring readers closer to what they can actually expect next season.
A fly on the wall for the first few minutes, I eventually found enough guts to start asking questions. Mike Drago from the Reading Eagle and another reporter had Gordon's ear first and I stepped in and turned on my recorder. There was already a quiet, intense discussion about the nuances of relief pitching; Drago was asking all the right questions, and Gordon's answers were honest, clear and confident. Seeing my chance, I piped in with my own question, which rated about a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 for smoothness.
"What about the other 40 percent, the physical side of pitching. How do you feel?"
To set this up, Gordon had earlier revealed to Drago that the closer position was 65-70 percent mental toughness, the rest physical. For some reason, I quipped "40 percent." Besides being 5-10 percent off, what a stupid question in the first place.
"I feel fine," he responded, and that was basically it.
A true beer leaguer among professionals, I thought. I got the impression the question had been asked before, but I was off in la-la land and had missed it. The next reporter asked his next question, approaching it the way I should have approached it. He asked Flash to explain whether concerns over his age were justified, and Flash gave a long, detailed answer. After that, I didn’t ask another question from Flash.
As the session progressed, I got my confidence back. I moved on to Aaron Rowand next, who was answering questions about defense to a guy in a goatee from KYW-1060 radio. These were the types of questions I wanted to ask – defense – because it’s something off the beaten path. Beerleaguer all the way.
I was impressed at Rowand's technical understanding of outfield, which compliments his more-publicized fearlessness. I got a sense he loves to play outfield and will be a true captain playing alongside Pat and Bobby, which is what he called them. That interview lasted about 5 minutes until I mercifully let one of the best two or three defensive outfielders in the world be to himself. It looked like he’d been at this press parade thing for days. His eyes were red.
About 30 minutes into it, Charlie Manuel opened up to be interviewed. What a blast. By the end, he was patting me on the back. I talked to him one-on-one for about 15 minutes and I could tell we were there for the same reason -- we both loved baseball. He's highly unquotable, however. There’s no filter there; it’s just a stream of baseball and unbridled enthusiasm. But his rapid-fire honestly is infectious. I told him why I thought he deserved more credit for certain things last season and read from a list I prepared earlier. When I finished, he was beaming, as if no one had ever given him a compliment in his life.
(Once we get the software installed, that interview is coming off my borrowed recorder and will be posted on this site. Among issues discussed included David Bell's defense, Chris Roberson and Carlos Ruiz.)
With ten minutes left in the session, Gillick opened up. He was sitting in a dark corner, his face stretched from melting away during too many of these shindigs. I had his ear, one-on-one, for about five minutes and asked whether his approach at evaluating talent had changed this time around. Not really, he said. I asked about Carlos Ruiz and the catcher spot, and both he and Manuel agree the backup job is wide open for him this spring. Manuel indicated they were actually talking about Ruiz on the bus ride to the hotel. I concluded by asking him whether the Thome for Rowand trade was designed to improve defense in any way, and he said he had asked the manager whether he was satisfied with team defense when he first arrived, and Manuel said that he was. I didn’t like that answer. It didn’t give me a good feeling about Manuel’s toughness and need to expect only the best. I also asked if steps were being taken to improve the minor leagues, and Gillick said winning at all levels was important. It was a very standard interview, even for a blogger interviewing a general manager who has won world titles. I was underwhelmed.
Right at the end, I packed my stuff away and prepared to leave. My bag was under a chair right next to the spot Gillick was sitting. I asked him if he thought there was a chance the Phillies could be this year’s White Sox. He said the White Sox had Buehrle, Contreras, Garcia, Hernandez and Garland, and then he just sort of stared at me.