May 08, 2017
Lost in the hubbub of the NFL draft here last month was a surprising response by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney when a reporter asked him if there would be a championship parade during his administration.
“Yes,” the mayor said.
Kenney has three years to go in his current term, with the chance to tack on another four if he is re-elected. Unlike Mayors John Street and Michael Nutter – who often faked their interest in sports – Kenney is a serious fan. He knows what he’s talking about.
But he’s dead wrong this time. The imminent success of the Sixers remains the most popular and implausible scenario in recent Philadelphia sports history, based solely on the accumulation of assets. The Sixers have been selling this promise of imminent greatness for years. Why are so many fans still buying it?
First of all, the foundation of this supposed championship team is already teetering on the shaky health of two projected cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid has managed 31 games in his first three years as an NBA player; Simmons never got on the court in his rookie season.
The only actual building block after four seasons of tanking is Dario Saric, and he is hardly a major piece in the grand plan. Yes, the Sixers have more top draft picks in the future, but until someone comes along who can stay healthy and produce the way Embiid did in January, talk of a parade is absurd.
And let’s not forget that if somehow Embiid survives next season, he can declare for free agency and join a team with a far more tangible chance for success – if not in 2018, then certainly in 2019. The Sixers have waited so long to win, the window of opportunity may already be closing.
The correct answer to Kenny’s question is obvious. The Eagles give the mayor his best chance for a parade, and it shouldn’t require re-election. They have the one precious commodity our other three teams have been unable to find, a young, talented, smart, grounded leader.
His name is Carson Wentz.
Embiid has a chance to provide the same transcendent talent to the Sixers, but there are too many questions right now. Will his knee heal properly? Will his foot stand up to an 82-game schedule? Will his quirky personality turn sour? Will he stay once he’s free to go?
Wentz provides none of those concerns. When I spoke to him two weeks ago on my WIP radio show, he kept expressing his anger at finishing 7-9 in his rookie season. The kid is a winner, with a single-minded focus on exactly what Mayor Kenney is predicting for the Sixers.
As for the other teams, forget it. The Flyers have a few young pieces to build on, but no one like Wentz. The Phillies have a bold new voice in ownership, John Middleton, but there’s no evidence their analytics experts can find any great players to inspire a new wave of hope.
The immediate future of Philadelphia sports is the Eagles, no question. Thanks to impressive free-agent signings and a terrific draft, they will contend for the NFC East title this season, and much more in the next few years.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s one big difference between the Eagles and the Sixers. The Eagles are actually building a champion, not just talking about it.
In fact, if Wentz does win it all, Mayor Kenney will have to pray the young quarterback doesn’t turn to politics.
Mayor Carson Wentz has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Whether they want to admit it or not, there is a major disconnect between the ownership of the Phillies and the people making the day-to-day decisions. The owners want to win soon. Their underlings are in no hurry to do so. A clash between these philosophies is inevitable.
How can I be so sure? I was sitting across from managing partner John Middleton two weeks ago, and I saw the sour expression on his face when I asked about losing so often while trying to build a winner. Middleton is a billionaire. He didn’t get so successful in business by accepting anything less than the best.
His GM feels no such urgency. Matt Klentak proved it again last week when he dismissed all suggestions of bringing up two of the organization’s prize prospects, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and catcher Jorge Alfaro, arguing that the players manning those positions in the big league deserve more time.
The problem with this thinking is that the Phillies are not aiming for mediocrity – something Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp represent – they want to return to the elite status they enjoyed a decade ago. The sooner Hoskins and Alfaro arrive and prosper, the sooner the Phils will get there.
Klentak has proven so far that, at 36, he is acting exactly the way a young, inexperienced GM is expected to act, unfortunately. He takes no chances. He feels no pressure to win now. What he may not realize yet is that his boss is nowhere near as comfortable with a losing team.
The GM’s current acceptance of mediocrity already appears to have affected his manager, Pete Mackanin, who has become far more tolerant of players not hustling this season, erring on the side of his locker room far too often these days.
Last week, Mackanin actually said: “Oddly enough, I have a lot of faith in this bullpen.” That reaction is odd, all right. His bullpen – devoid of a closer or anyone reliable leading up to the ninth inning – stinks. In the final year of his contract, Mackanin should be clamoring for some new arms. John Middleton would not praise this slop.
The bottom line is, the guys running the Phillies right now have a lot less time to succeed than they think. If they had seen the look on Middleton’s face when I asked about losing, they would stop sheltering the lousy players on this team and replace them with some good ones.
When the Boston Red Sox cracked down on racist fans last week, someone needed to ask the organization what took them so long. The truth is, the sports teams in one of America’s most prejudiced cities have been looking the other way for far too long.
How can I be so sure? Because I grew up outside of Boston and covered hundreds of sports events there, and what happened to Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones last week was not an isolated incident. The only reason this ugly secret became public is that the fans picked the wrong target this time.
Jones, an African-American star with an impeccable reputation on and off the field, reported after a game last week that a group of fans at Fenway Park were shouting the n-word at him throughout the game and that one threw a bag of peanuts in his direction, hitting a police officer.
The Red Sox issued a laughable statement later in the week proclaiming a zero tolerance policy against racism and banned for life a fan the next night after another racial incident in the stands. Zero tolerance? Then maybe the team can explain why so much of this behavior is suddenly happening.
In fact, it has always been happening. It took place 50 years ago when Bill Russell had to endure racist heckling in his own city while winning 11 championships for the Celtics. And someone should ask Jim Rice why his teammate Fred Lynn – an inferior player – was so much more beloved that he was. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?
Boston has always worshiped sports heroes, but primarily if they were white sports heroes. Larry Bird owns the town; Russell never will. Tom Brady has never had to pay for a meal. Andre Tippett had better bring his billfold. Bob Cousy is a hero there. Jo Jo White, not even close.
The real story last week is that the Red Sox got caught harboring a small but undeniable core of rotten fans and horrible people and had no choice but to act. That’s why the fans gave Jones a standing ovation, and why the team suddenly started paying attention to what has been happening in the crowd for decades.
Has the Adam Jones incident finally changed Boston?
I wouldn’t bet on it.
And finally …
• It’s no secret to Philadelphia sports fans that Curt Schilling is an attention whore. Do you remember how, in his rookie season, he draped a towel over his head when closer Mitch Williams was pitching? Well, now he has fired up Twitter by denying there were any racial incidents last week at Fenway Park. After all, he argued, he played there for a long time. He would know. Some people think Schilling is pathetic. Others think he’s just an idiot. I wholeheartedly embrace both theories.
• The most surprising story of the week was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offering a tryout to ex-Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper. First of all, Cooper is a terrible player. He lasted six forgettable seasons with the Birds solely because he was a decent blocker. And second, there’s the baggage Cooper carries with him after that racial incident four years ago. Cooper didn’t play at all last season. I’m hoping he doesn’t play this season, either.
• Radko Gudas, playing for Czechoslovakia in the World Hockey Championships last weekend, flattened Flyers teammate Claude Giroux with one punch in a melee during Team Canada’s 4-1 win. “That’s expected,” said Giroux. “That’s the way he plays.” Well, at least this proves Giroux is just as boring in international competition as he is in the NHL.
• If Howie Kendrick becomes a regular again when he comes off the disabled list, then the Phils really have no clue how to build a team. Aaron Altherr, 26, has succeeded this season where he failed in 2016, providing a capable bat and some exemplary work in the outfield. The only reason to return Kendrick, 33, to the lineup is to justify another dumb acquisition by GM Matt Klentak.
• Ryan Howard insisted last week that “there’s still something left in the tank” despite his .184 batting average in the minor leagues. Clearly, his love of the game is screwing up his grasp of logic. The ex-Phillies slugger has been a diminished player ever since he tore his Achilles on the final play of the 2011 season. If he actually believes there’s anything left in his tank, he needs a new fuel gauge.