Bill Conlin | 6 of 1, half-dozen of the other

IN DOMINICAN Republic baseball circles, Antonio Alfonseca, the Phillies' new bullpen setup candidate-in-waiting-for-a-physical is called "El Pulpo."

"The Octopus."

The veteran righthander, currently pitching winter ball in the Dominican Republic, has six

fingers on his pitching hand. In another life, he must have been one of Ernest Hemingway's

multitoed cats. Presumably, in an era when the circle-changeup is a trendy pitch, El Pulpo trumps that with the infinity-changeup, accomplished by

making side-by-side circles.

The nickname is not quite accurate. Octopi have eight arms. Alfonseca has just two arms and 12 fingers. Yep, he has six digits on his left hand, as well.

But wait, there's more. After learning Antonio Alfonseca also has six toes on each foot, I giddily began running through the Phillies' uniform numbers.

Please . . . Please . . .

Please . . . Be there.

After watching the first 4 calamitous hours of Jack Bauer's romp through the sixth day of "24," I was hoping no Phils player has been assigned the magic number that would so perfectly match the number of Alfonseca's fingers and toes.

Twenty-four is a fairly common baseball number worn most prominently by Willie Mays and a slew of Say Hey wannabes.

And it apparently is available. Alfonseca and Mexican League free-agent outfielder Karim

Garcia must pass physicals before general manager Pat Gillick can formally assign them to roster spots and uniform numbers.

For Alfonseca, No. 24 is not a typical reliever's number, but it would be one of the most descriptive in baseball history. Hey, no need for pitching coach Rich Dubee to pick up the bullpen phone - just wave one of those fake octopi.

The Phillies assembled the

media at the Money Pit's

Diamond Club at High Noon

yesterday to catch everybody up on the breaking news. They currently have six starting pitchers and expect to contend for the postseason. After a meet-and-greet-not-much-to-eat session

attended by a few players, including Chris Coste, Adam Eaton, Wes Helms, Ryan Madson, Matt Smith and Shane Victorino, the Phillies announced that centerfielder Crash Rowand has avoided arbitration. Aaron signed a 1-year deal for a base salary of $4.35 million.

I always regard the Phillies

calendar as an item of interest. It's not as intriguing a barometer as the reviewing-stand pecking order the former Soviet Union used to trot out for the May Day Parade each year. But over time it has been a fair measure of which players, beyond the obvious, are mortal locks to spend an entire season wearing the pinstripes.

Pat Burrell is Mr. January.

I was not surprised the team's highest-paid player was included in the calendar. But I figured him presiding over November or December, when he could have been dumped without messing up a perfectly good baseball month.

Not that January is a great baseball month . . .

Now if I was trying to buff the ugliest swing in baseball to a suitable-for-framing luster it would be in a pose that certifies Burrell has just smoked a baseball far

into the night, guessed right on a fastball a little up and away and unfurled that swing where he gets his arms out, keeps his left side locked and has made contact with his hands behind the ball. His money swing.

The way the final two seasons of his $50 million contract are written, the Phillies will pay him $27 million. And if Pat had skills beyond the longball, maybe he would have value to some wealthy team looking for 90 to 100 RBI. But most evaluations of his ancillary skills rank him as one of the game's slowest base-runners and a traffic cone in left. He only helps your team when he's on an RBI tear, an event that last season often was out of phase with the scoreboard.

So the Phillies' Mr. January presents an unretouched photo of the mace that launched a thousand quips. His bat is back but the lower half of his imposing body is oddly out of phase with the top half. The left shoulder is closed but the left hip is already opening. If the pitch he is about to swing at is away, he is cooked. His eyes reveal the pitch is up and it might be in because he is in perfect righthand parenthesis position. That's the one where he freezes like this ) on an inside pitch that has locked his brain, hands and body. The back leg, his second problem area, is already buckling. There is no dirt on the right knee, so it could be his first swing of a game or a posed one.

Whatever, you better get used to it. Baseball's rules require somebody to bat fifth in the order. Burrell has averaged 27 homers and 92 RBI for his seven seasons. Those are not inconsequential numbers. They are worthy of a man counted on to be enough of a menace to keep managers from holding up four fingers when Ryan Howard digs in to hit and a base is open.

Two of the big questions of the 2007 season will be:

Who sets up for Tom Gordon? Ryan Madson? Or will it be El Pulpo?

Who bats fifth? Will it be Pat Burrell?

Pat Gillick doesn't have to come up with an answer today. He is thankful for that. You should be, as well. *

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