At first glance, romance has suffered a slow death over the past couple of decades in American society. Album covers have been replaced by I-Tunes receipts. Long phone conversations have been replaced by 140-character texts. Games of stick ball have been replaced by games of Grand Theft Auto.
Covering baseball is no different. Deadlines are earlier, players are less accessible, and the powers that be won't even let you bring a flask of Jack Daniels into the press box anymore.
Ah, the good old days.
But really, weren't they saying the same things when flapper dresses replaced hoop skirts and the Beatles started playing that confounded Devil's music?
As the noted philosopher Hugh Grant observed in the opening scene of Love, Actually, "General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see it. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girl friends, old friends. . .If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspcion - love, actually, is all around."
Which brings me to a night in Clearwater two years ago, when a group of sports writers sat at a dimly-lit bar just west of the beach and drank beer and ate grouper sandwiches and talked about baseball. There was nothing newsworthy, and certainly nothing dignified, just a few scribes decompressing from a week full of meaningless at-bats and carefully-monitored pitch counts.
During the conversation, one unnamed scribe piped up with a question concerning a speedy little Hawaiian who was attempting to replace Aaron Rowand in center field. The spring had been full of many questions -- What will the Phillies get out of Adam Eaton? Will the bullpen thrive? Can Brad Lidge rebound from knee surgery? -- but few of them involved Shane Victorino's ability to slide into an everyday role. It seemed to the unnamed scribe that people were taking Victorino's performance for granted, that they were making the mistake of assuming that the .284 batting average and .345 on base percentage he had produced over the previous two-plus seasons as a part-time player would accompany him to his new role.
"What has Shane Victorino done to deserve the benefit of the doubt?" the unnamed scribe asked.
Two years later, I -- um, I mean the unnamed scribe -- has seen the light.
Despite Cliff Lee and Brad Lidge and Raul Ibanez, one of the most important story-lines of the Phillies season thus far has been the emergence of one Shane Victorino. Just under 2,000 at-bats into his major league career, it is now safe to say that what fans have witnessed over the past couple of years is the birth of a star.
Through 113 games, Victorino is leading the team with a .316 batting average and is second with a .380 on base percentage. He has already set career highs in doubles (31), triples (8) and walks (45), and his five RBI shy of the career-high 58 he set last season. He is hitting .302 against righties, .348 against lefties, .316 with runners in scoring position, .625 with the bases loaded, .375 with a man on third and two out, and .304 with runners in scoring position and two out.
He is also well on his way to a second Gold Glove.
In the Phillies' last seven games, against some darn good pitchers, Victorino is hitting .414 with nine runs scored. Of those seven games, he has had multiple hits in five of them. Victorino has been the team's most consistent hitter this season, which was the one aspect of his game that seemed to be lacking last year. He is tied for the team-lead in runs, and is second in at-bats.
Is it a coincidence that whenever something exciting happens, Victorino is in the middle? Remember the benches-clearing incident at Dodgers Stadium last year? The grand slam of C.C. Sabathia? The showdown with Julian Tavarez? The beer-dumping incident? If there was any doubt that Victorino deserved the final spot in the All-Star game, he has eliminated it over the past month.
There's no doubt that the vast majority of the 52 sell-out crowds at Citizens Bank Park this season have flooded the gates to guys like Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels and Chase Utley and Cliff Lee.
But Victorino has been worth the price of admission.
Some quick thoughts:
1) Where's Greg Dobbs? The Phillies' super-sub has not logged an official plate appearance since Aug. 11 in Chicago. But he has been more a victim of his starter's success than anything else. Thanks to a complete game by Cliff Lee, an eight-inning outing by J.A. Happ, and the combination of Pedro Martinez and Jamie Moyer two nights ago, the Phillies have not used a pinch-hitter in any of their last three games. Charlie Manuel tried to pinch-hit Dobbs on Aug. 15 in Atlanta against righty Kenshin Kawakami, but Bobby Cox responded by bringing in lefty Eric O'Flaherty, which prompted a switch to Ben Francisco. In the Phils' last seven games, they have used just four pinch-hitters.
2) What's up with Cliff Lee? I was asked this question this morning on ESPN First Take. A few observations: First, Lee has been pitching well for most of the season, he was just the victim of awful run support in Cleveland. The Indians failed to score more than two runs in 10 of his 22 starts this season. It took him 14 games to reach four victories in Cleveland. It has taken him four to reach four in Philadelphia. Second, that run support, along with a great defense, has enabled Lee to do what he does best -- throw strikes. In his 22 starts for Cleveland, 67 percent of his pitches went for strikes. In his four starts for the Phillies, that number is 71 percent.
3) Also on First Take, I was asked whether Cliff Lee's performance has taken any attention away from Michael Vick. At the beginning of the season, if you would have told me that I would be asked a question involving both Lee and Vick, I would have figured that I was out of a job.