April 2nd 2014 15:56
April Fool’s Day traditionally is a day of varying degrees of levity and humor, ranging from elaborate Internet-based hoaxes to good old fashioned whoopie cushions strategically placed on the boss’s chair.
April 1, 2014 however, was anything but a good time for the Philadelphia pro sports scene as once again, the Sports Gods decided to tweak their favorite collective whipping boy: the Philly sports fans.
The first cruel joke came at the expense of the Flyers, who have been among the best teams in all of hockey since their abysmal start, and who have proven themselves to be such by going toe-to-toe with the upper crust of the NHL over the past few weeks, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.
The Orange and Black downed Chicago on a thrilling overtime winner by Claude Giroux with just under five seconds on the clock, swept the hated Pens in a weekend home-and-home set, and skated stride for stride to a 3-3 tie through overtime before falling to the Bruins in a shootout on Sunday.
Last night in St. Louis, where the Blues enjoy one of the biggest home ice advantages in the league (26-6-4 entering last night), the Flyers played a spirited and entertaining contest that resulted in a 0-0 tie through 65 minutes of regulation and overtime, courtesy of the solid net minding of back up Ray Emery, and the Blues’ trade deadline acquisition Ryan Miller being, well…Ryan Miller.
And then, behind U.S. Olympic hero and shootout specialist T.J. Oshie, the Blues won the shootout – or hockey’s version of Home Run Derby – 2-0 as the Flyers were still unable to get a puck into the twine behind Miller. And with the rival Rangers winning in Vancouver, 3-1, the (hopefully) playoff-bound Flyers now sit three points out of second behind New York in the Metropolitan Division standings, with a showdown in South Philly with the fourth place Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow night.
The second teaser impacted the Phillies, who were facing the Rangers in their second game of a three-game set in Arlington. Fresh off of a wild 14-10 win in the opener on Monday, the Fightins got a solid performance from free agent pickup A.J. Burnett, who was his effectively wild self for most of the night while limiting Texas to a single run over six strong innings.
The Phils staked the veteran righthander to a 2-0 lead in the 6th, finally getting to starter Martin Perez as Jimmy Rollins drove in his team-leading fifth run of the season with an RBI single, and Ryan Howard knocked in his first run of the season with an RBI double – which was great to see as the Big Piece came through against a lefty pitcher.
Unfortunately, the bullpen wasn’t able to hold the lead as skipper Ryne Sandberg went with a trio of lefties to get them to the finish line, but came up short of the victory. Jake Diekman promptly gave up the lead by allowing the tying run to score on an Adrian Beltre RBI double in the 7th, and following a scoreless inning from Antonio Bastardo, Sandberg opted to go with rookie southpaw Mario Hollands in the 9th with lefties Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder due up, instead of sticking with Bastardo for a second inning.
Hollands looked every bit the part of a rookie making his Major League debut in a high-pressure situation, issuing a four-pitch walk to Choo and another free pass to Fielder (Elvis Andrus executed a sacrifice bunt in-between) before serving up a game-winning RBI single to Beltre.
The Phils are back at it again tonight in the rubber game, with Kyle Kendrick taking the mound.
And, for the Sports Gods’ final act, the DeSean Jackson drama finally came to an end, as news broke just before midnight that the former Eagles’ wideout agreed to a three-year deal…not with the AFC’s Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns, and not with the NFC West’s San Francisco 49ers – all of whom were rumored to be interested in acquiring the mercurial wide receiver. No, DJax instead cancelled all of his other speculated visits with potential suitors (assuming there were any?) and will be signing his contract possibly as we speak to play for the Washington Redskins – yes, the NFC East rival Washington Redskins.
Not the best way to cap off what had already been a pretty disappointing April Fool’s Day!
But let’s take a look at things from an uncharacteristically optimistic, glass-half-full viewpoint today instead of our usual civic doom and gloom sports outlook.
For the Flyers, getting a pair of hard-earned points via overtime losses in back-to-back contests against the top teams in each conference only further solidifies their position amongst the NHL’s elite, and can only serve to bolster their confidence as they close out their season and look to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their goaltending situation with Emery and starter Steve Mason is better than it has been in years, their new emphasis on defense under Craig Berube is keeping them in every game, and their balanced scoring attack led by Giroux and a host of other scoring threats – including the recently revitalized Vincent Lecavalier – all point to what could be a potentially deep run this spring.
For the Phillies, Burnett’s performance last night against one of the top lineups in all of baseball (who roughed up Cliff Lee for eight runs the day before), coupled with news of Cole Hamels’ pain-free, 44-pitch effort in Clearwater gives the organization hope that they’ll have three very effective starters taking the mound every five days by late April.
Chase Utley has looked to be back to his old self after struggling mightily at the plate throughout Spring Training, Cody Asche has the look of a Major Leaguer after his stellar performance in the opener, and Howard appears to be back in good health and taking a better approach at the plate – his five K’s through two games notwithstanding.
And for the Eagles, you have to hope last weeks’ decision to release Jackson is a case of addition by subtraction. There is little debate over Jackson’s playmaking ability, and his mere presence on the field forcing teams to keep a safety deep in center field or rolled in coverage to his side of the field out of respect for his game-breaking speed.
There is a great deal of conjecture and speculation over the reasons WHY he was let go after a season that saw him haul in 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and 9 touchdowns: his exorbitant 2014 salary ($10.75 million), his reported need of an attitude adjustment, his petulant diva behavior, his reported blowing off of an exit meeting with Chip Kelly, his alleged gang connections (again, ALLEGED!), or some combination of all of the above and whatever else we don’t know that went on behind closed doors at the NovaCare Complex.
The reality is we don’t know what we don’t know here, and what we do know is that Kelly is attempting to create a winning culture that is based on guys buying in to everything he is doing, from the offense to the special teams to the strength and conditioning programs to the sports science program. If he viewed Jackson as an outlier and a potential distraction to others, then he really had no other alternative than to move on from him.
In reading Mark Saltveit’s excellent book “The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons From America’s Most Innovative Coach”, it is clear that Kelly places a lot of value on attitude over talent, and has proven with various personnel decisions during his tenure at Oregon that he will make the tough decisions regarding discipline and dismissing players for the betterment of the group, not the individual.
One other nugget from Saltveit’s book: the author detailed a Kelly appearance on the set of ESPN’s “College Gameday” that was in Oregon for a big game. As Kelly made his way to the set, the crowd began chanting something that was difficult to make out at first, but eventually was interpreted to be “Big Balls Chip”, the nickname the Ducks’ fans affectionately gave the coach for his propensity to take risks during games, from trick plays to going for it on fourth down.
After seeing the Jackson saga play out this offseason, it’s clear that nickname still applies to Kelly in Philly, because it certainly takes a major set of cojones to not only get rid of your top playmaking wide receiver, but even more so to simply release him and run the risk of him signing with a division rival, as Jackson is doing today.
Thankfully, the calendar now reads April 2, 2014, so now we can move on from yesterday’s horror show and look forward to some spirited hockey down the stretch, a full season of Phillies baseball and the opportunity to observe our civic duty to lustily boo DeSean upon his return to The Linc next fall!