February 17, 2014

I've been busy: A recap of my work so far in 2014.

I haven't had much time to compose any posts of late; I've been too busy writing and reviewing movies at In Reel Deep. So I thought it would be nice to link anyone who stumbles upon kingmyno.com to my new home of sorts; please take a look at everything I've written in 2014. As always, I appreciate your love and support.

My favorite movies of 2013

"It's difficult to put something like 12 Years a Slave on a list of 'favorites.' It's not designed to entertain so much as make you weep like a baby. But that is an even more engaging experience, and one I'm constantly looking for in a movie theatre. You wouldn't take your friends to see 12 Years before a Saturday night on the town, but there is forever a place for art with the ability to provoke such visceral reactions. In the hands of director Steve McQueen, one of the best at recognizing the power of silence, Chiwetel Ejiofor's crushing journey becomes that much more haunting."

The Lego Movie reviewed

"The Lego Movie is living proof that putting together a worthwhile screenplay and letting imaginative people mold a generic idea into their own unique creation pays dividends. You don't just get a successful film; you get a franchise fueled by loads of devoted fans who, rarest of the rare, genuinely want to see a sequel. Simply put, it's blockbuster entertainment done right."

The 2014 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts reviewed

"The best of the five turned out to be Avant Que De Tout Perdre, French for Just Before Losing Everything. A woman (Léa Drucker) plans to flee from her husband during an otherwise nondescript workday. We’re privy to all the minutiae of her decision: Gathering up her children, putting in her notice, asking for an advance on her final paycheck, organizing a ride to safety with her sister. What isn't discussed is why: Aside from a few briefly visible bruises and several offhand comments from her kids, their backstory isn't elaborated upon. Only a glimpse is offered of the husband himself. But a deep fear is palpable throughout its 29 minutes, and the ending reminded me of Michael Haneke’s Caché in its quiet open-endedness."

A look back at the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman

"Does it matter what killed him? Maybe, but only because he seemed like the kind of person who would never die. For some reason, character actors have an eternal vibe to them. Hell, Harry Dean Stanton has been alive for what, 120 years? Even the character actors turned leading men — Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro — they live forever. It would've been fascinating to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman age on the big screen. I think we all expected him to. But now he's gone, and there's nothing up next."

Lone Survivor reviewed

"[Director Peter Berg] is brutally honest; he does not paint his four leads as white knights who've arrived to save the country from evil. Their mission is essentially to assassinate a Taliban leader. They openly discuss their desires to kill every motherfucker who's keeping them from home; they're blunt, efficient war machines. But that's something, as audiences, we should see."

The Past reviewed

"I don't think [Asghar] Farhadi's latest endeavor, The Past, matches the brilliant despair evoked by its award-winning predecessor [A Separation]. But it doesn't strive to document the disintegration of a loving marriage; the focus is on how (to paraphrase Maximus Decimus Meridius) what we've done in life echoes in eternity. Or at least, for the rest of our days."

January 3, 2014

Thankful for Chip, thankful for Nick.

Three hundred and fifty-seven days ago, I wondered aloud who the next head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles would be. Now I'm prepping for tomorrow's playoff game. As Road Warrior Hawk would say, "Ueeawwwwaaah, what a rush."

This resurgence, led by future bumper sticker magnate Chip Kelly, hasn't always been pretty; anyone going with the "wunderkind coach runs roughshod over the NFL" narrative must've missed a few of 2013's real stinkers. But it has been quite an enjoyable turn of events, and one you may have been able to predict if you squinted just right at the roster in early September.

At the very least, you can see why the Chipper wanted to coach in Philadelphia and not, say, Cleveland. An offensive line fueled by the return of Jason Peters and the drafting of Lane Johnson was sure to be vastly improved (and it was). LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson were, and are, two of the most explosive players in football. And while healthy, Michael Vick looked like a tantalizing choice to run Kelly's offense.

But the two wildcards - the defense and Nick Foles - are what helped this team rise from "thoroughly mediocre" to "slightly to very good." The defense started off hideously; 138 points surrendered over the first four games meant an already-explosive offensive attack would have have to be downright perfect to keep the ship afloat. But thus began a stretch (from Week 5 to Week 14) where the Eagles gave up 21 points or less in every single game.

Yes, their competition (Tampa Bay, Oakland, Detroit in the snow, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers) wasn't particular fierce. And yes, Minnesota somehow uncovered the key to torching them in Week 16. But you could see young players like Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin growing up before your eyes, while veterans like Trent Cole began to grasp the subtleties of existing in Bill Davis's defense. Essentially, what looked like a serious minus turned out to be a bit of a plus.

And then there's Foles. Sweet, sweet Nick Foles. A healthy Michael Vick torched the Redskins and Chargers in the season's opening weeks, but we all knew that wouldn't last forever. The pesky Chiefs defense started his downfall in Week 3 (13 for 30 with two interceptions), and a Week 5 hamstring injury meant it was Nick Foles or bust.

Minus the stinker against the Cowboys in October, there's been nary a bust to be found. Foles has been nothing short of spectacular as the starting quarterback. Most people know about his nearly record-setting 119.2 QB rating, but that's not all the work of Chip Kelly's wacky offense. His intelligence in the pocket contributes to a rare brand of mistake-free football (only 19 giveaways, tied with Seattle, New Orleans and Carolina for fourth-lowest in the NFL) that has kept the defense off the field at inopportune moments (and certainly helped with their late-season resurgence).

Mix that with NFL rushing champion McCoy and Bryce "No More Fumbles" Brown -- not to mention a truly wonderful season (44.9 yard average, 33 punts inside the 20) from Donnie Jones -- and you've got an offense that often comes out on top in ball control and field position. And oh yeah, one that also led the NFL in plays of 20-plus yards. Not saying the Chipper is perfect as a head coach, far from it, but these are some aspects that he's nailed thus far.

I don't think the Eagles are a true Super Bowl contender, but home versus New Orleans followed by Carolina on the road is probably the "easiest" possible path to the NFC Championship Game. And if you told me before the season "the Eagles will win the division against Dallas in Week 17, but they won't win it all," my response would've been "Wait, what? Woo! Who the fuck cares?!"

That doesn't mean expectations haven't changed from the preseason to now, but I'm trying to sit back and enjoy the ride. Chip Kelly looks like a legitimate NFL coach, Nick Foles looks like a legitimate NFL quarterback, and the team that employs both of those men happens to be my favorite, and participating in the postseason. That's a lot to be thankful for.

December 12, 2013

He's our huckleberry.

The date was October 7, 2011. It was Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series.

I was living in Bethesda, Maryland at the time, and some friends from Philadelphia had come down for the weekend. You'd think that we would be going nuts for this crucial matchup, but it was actually quite the opposite. We sat sipping beers, preparing for the night ahead, occasionally ignoring the pitchers' duel in front of us.

We'd grown complacent; in those days the Phillies seemed to be perpetually in the playoff hunt, including a delightful World Series championship in 2008. We couldn't have realized that this was the last important baseball game Roy Halladay would ever start.

He was 34 years old, not a spring chicken but nowhere near the age of typical depletion. He was coming off a 19-win, 233-inning, 220-strikeout season where he finished second in Cy Young voting and ninth in MVP voting. As studly as ever, Halladay seemed to be.

There was no reason to believe that his body would break down, that he'd throw only 218 more innings in his major league career, that the Phillies themselves were about to tumble from a half-decade of elite contention.

But here we are, in December of 2013, and Roy Halladay is officially out of baseball.

He retired on Monday as a Toronto Blue Jay, a fitting tribute to the team that helped him blossom into one of the game's finest pitchers. The Jays could never leap to the top of the AL East and get Doc into the postseason, but it was Toronto who gave the young Halladay a chance when a rocky start (10.64 ERA in 67 innings in 2000) would've doomed so many other arms.

Still, as Michael Baumann noted on Tuesday, Halladay made the most of his time in Philly. Despite only a few short years in the city, Doc found himself revered as one of the few universally beloved Philadelphia athletes.

Developing strong feelings for Roy Halladay was easy; we could tell from second one that he wasn't out for personal glory. He wasn't trying to round out his resume with one more bullet point; he wanted to win. You could sense that in every fiber of his being, with every pitch, in every photo snapped of his insane early-morning workouts. His icy stare could burn holes through a catcher or manager, but he seemed to love both Carlos Ruiz and Charlie Manuel. He was like a exacting father; he demanded the best, but earning that smile made it all worthwhile.

He came to Philadelphia because they were the hottest team in baseball: two straight World Series appearances, three straight playoff appearances, bona fide superstars in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels. His arrival was the icing on the cake; add a Cy Young winner to a perennial contender and watch the magic happen.

Of course, it's not that easy, and he never got that ring. The Phillies ran into two future world champions in 2010 and 2011, then the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. In fact, I wonder what Roy might've done if the 2014 Phillies looked like title contenders. They aren't; they'll be lucky to sniff second place. But if the stars had aligned, would he give it one more try?

In the end, though, he didn't want to ply his trade for some mediocre team (in Philadelphia or otherwise), hoping that they'd catch lightning in a bottle. His body was falling apart: labrum, rotator cuff, back. We saw him labor on the mound throughout his ill-fated return in late 2013, sweating profusely and looking nothing like the Roy Halladay we'd come to love. The gradual decline turned into an all-out free fall faster than anyone could've anticipated; I know I wasn't the only Phillies fan who breathed a small sigh of relief when I found out that he'd hung them up.

Roy Halladay spent four seasons in Philly; only two of them ended up mattering. But in a way he validated the city as a premier baseball town; his time in a Phillies uniform confirmed our lingering suspicions that the team was (albeit briefly) among Major League Baseball's elite. For a while it was Boston or New York, Boston or New York, but for a fleeting moment, there was also Philadelphia.

Despite eight 1-run innings from their ace, the Phillies lost that night in October of 2011. Their anemic offense was mowed down by Chris Carpenter, another aging superstar who was also nearing the end of his dominance in St. Louis.

"Ho hum," we yawned. The bats were garbage; that's all it was. Roy and the boys would be back next year.

But they weren't. And now Roy is gone forever. While it's hard to feel bad for a man who's made $148 million and will probably make the Hall of Fame in a few years, I'm genuinely sad that he never won a World Series in Philadelphia. He doesn't need one, but athletes like Roy Halladay don't seem to come along very often. And it's a goddamn shame to leave them hanging when they do.

December 7, 2013

In praise of Eastbound & Down.

In this age of television antiheroes, let us kneel at the altar of Kenny Powers.

An oft-deplorable man who toed the line of irredeemable on a weekly basis, only to win us back through crippling honesty and sheer force of will. Comedy or drama, now or then, there's been no character quite like him.

We were overjoyed to live inside Tony Soprano's head for a while, but there wasn't much to love. Vic Mackey's finest hour was admitting all the horrible things he'd done and walking out a free man. Walter White did some right at the end, but only after so much wrong. Al Swearengen comes close, but by the end of Deadwood he was firmly on the side of good.

And when it comes to comedy, there's no competition. No show has ever pushed boundaries like Eastbound & Down, and I don't just mean all the boobs and butts. A drama can slowly peel back the layers of its tortured protagonist -- by the time Don Draper is at his most deplorable, we have some insight as to why -- but comedy, as it exists on television, demands some sort of relatable lead. Or at least a sympathetic buffoon like David Brent.

But Kenny Powers asks for no sympathy. He was fully formed from day one, a man-child unable to function in society. He mistreated pretty much everyone around him, sometimes humorously but often just to reestablish his standing in a very sad pecking order. But we understood why his essence could be so intoxicating, and we appreciated every fleeting moment of clarity as he struggled against his own demons, and what he felt was expected of him by the world at large.

And in a roundabout way, that's what made him relatable. He's a man striving for the gold in a disposable world, with no use for those its already chewed up and spit out. His 30 seconds of fame ended a while ago, but Kenny still struggles against the tide. This is noble at times, sad at others, but it helps him discover what he needs to fill the void in his soul.

What ultimately redeems Kenny, in both the universe of the show and for us viewers, is his self-awareness. His eyes and facial expresses betray a hidden intelligence; he knows when he's burying himself. He looks for a release in sex and drugs, but that's never properly satisfying. He wants to be loved and admired, at first by the world but eventually by the people he cares about. And the real trick is accepting that such love isn't conditional; he doesn't have to remain impressive, bombastic or outrageous. He can just be.

Of course, employing the charms of Danny McBride don't hurt. That hidden intelligence belongs to McBride, and he perfectly captures Kenny as a man unable to convey the churning emotions within. So when he finally does reveal his inner thoughts, it doesn't feel forced, or in service of the story. It feels like he's finally sunken low enough, or become so desperate, that they can't help but seep out.

To me, the first and last seasons of Eastbound are the only ones that really matter. Kenny's journey from comeback kid to reluctant father-slash-husband is important, but the bookends are the whole story. His readjustment to society, and then his acceptance of life's simpler pleasures, bring his character full circle. And an opportunity as a sportscaster is such a logical spot for Kenny to end up; it's almost the same amount of fame for even less work, a world his outsized personality could probably inhabit forever. The fact that he walks away is tantamount to his growth, or at least his understanding of self.

It's not like Eastbound gets preachy and insists that marriage and kids are the only path to happiness. But Kenny has seen the strength its brought his brother Dustin, and the (usually fucked-up) joy it brings Stevie Janowski, and we know he loves April. What it ultimately comes down to, more than dedication to holy matrimony, is the realization that satisfaction may lie in a place he never anticipated. We don't know how things will work out for the family Powers, but Kenny seems to comprehend that stability isn't failure. That feels like definitive progress.

In a way, Eastbound & Down ends similarly to The Shield. Not from a thematic standpoint; Vic Mackey remains an animal on the prowl, while Kenny Powers finally appears content. But as both wrap up, we're left to ponder the future of these fully formed characters. Will Vic strike back at those who've caged him? Will Kenny be able to exist in a domestic world? It's open-ended but also a summation of the story as a whole, which is the lofty goal that every television series should shoot for. Everything doesn't have to end when the cameras stop rolling. The adventures of Kenny Powers continue on, even if we can't see them, and that's the show's final victory.

Plus, there's this:

November 18, 2013

Catcher conundrum causes concern.

In 2004, the Philadelphia Phillies selected Jason Jaramillo in the second round of the MLB Draft. In the fourth round, the team chose Lou Marson. Travis D'Arnaud was their supplemental first round choice in 2007, and Sebastian Valle was signed out of Mexico that same year. Cameron Rupp was their third-round pick in 2010. Tommy Joseph was the "crown jewel" of the Hunter Pence trade.

These catchers have logged a combined 38 plate appearances for the Phillies, and today Carlos Ruiz was signed to a three-year, $26 million contract at the age of 35. This is not a coincidence.

I'm not here to slander Ruiz or his fancy new deal -- for the most part I agree with David Cameron's take -- but to chastise the Phillies for having one decade to develop a new catcher and utterly failing at the modest task that was their charge. Bill Baer touched on this very topic earlier today; minus D'Arnaud, who's been gone for quite a while, the luster has faded on every single one of those once-touted prospects.

Granted, Marson and D'Arnaud were part of the packages that brought in Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. And most prospects bottom out eventually; only a chosen few end up contributing in the majors. But it's still relatively jarring to consider the resources dedicated toward grooming the catcher of the future and how empty the cupboard turned out to be when the team needed it the most.

I'm certain the plan was to amicably part ways with Ruiz in late 2013 and allow either Valle or Joseph to assume the starting job, but Valle's struggles and Joseph's concussions quickly changed that tune. Rupp had four hits in 14 at-bats near the end of 2013, but the 25-year-old has practically no experience above single-A ball (Darin Ruf alert!). For a team with no choice but to pretend that they can compete in 2014, the only realistic option was to meet Ruiz's demands.

I can't help but be reminded of December 2010. Much like now, the plan was to let Jayson Werth receive a much-deserved payday elsewhere and fill the hole in right field with a cheap, talented prospect. But that prospect (Domonic Brown) did not impress management in his 210 plate appearances. Eventually it was decided that some combination of Brown, Ben Francisco and John Mayberry was not going to suffice. Ignoring that the Phillies were, at the time, the best team in baseball, two top prospects (Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart) were traded for Hunter Pence. And we all know how that story ends...curiously enough, with the aforementioned Joseph.

The Ruiz deal isn't the exact same scenario; unlike Werth, I'd define what it took to keep him around as "understandably excessive." And their other options at the position, both internal and external, were either nonexistent or highly unsavory. There was no Dom Brown to even try out in this scenario, let alone ignore.

But it's yet another check mark in the negative column for an organization that hasn't been able to develop talent for quite a while. Spending for middling free agents (or overspending on your own) is exactly the mindset that helped the Phillies devolve from contender to pretender. Carlos Ruiz will be a plus in 2014 and (hopefully) beyond, but the fact that he had to return at all can only be described as a serious minus.

November 16, 2013

The lady don't mind.

I've never understood picking up women in bars.

I'm sure there are wildly confident, gorgeous men who can perform this task without blinking an eye. And I know there's an entire industry built around the strategy involved: how to get attractive strangers to have sex with you in seven steps or less.

But I personally could never wrap my head around the logistics. What could you possibly say to attract these women in such a short amount of time? Is it entirely physical, or are some people so innately appealing that it's a no-brainer from the moment you catch their eye?

I can, however, comprehend how women themselves can get the ball rolling. Because there was one time when the magic did happen, and I can promise you that I was not the one who ignited the spark.

A year or so after college, I was out with my friends at a trendy watering hole in Boston's South End. I stepped up to get a drink, and when I turned to my left a young blonde lady was looking right at me.

I can't tell you what she said, or how I responded, but a conversation did indeed begin. There was a seat next to her at the bar, and I felt obligated to sit down. After about 20 minutes and another round of drinks, eventually our legs sort of intertwined. These were all good things.

This was all made better, of course, by the fact that my friends was sitting mere feet away. At first, they thought I had bumped into an old friend from school. But eventually they realized that this was a total stranger, and that she and I appeared to be hitting it off.

Every 10 minutes or so, one of them would come to get a drink and give me a massive thumbs up. Girls included. And, of course, when the lady and I shared a little bar smooch, someone was ready with a camera. The photo's still out there somewhere; my head is almost entirely perpendicular to hers. Don't ask me why.

Eventually it seemed like a foregone conclusion that we'd go home together. She popped away for a second to "grab her friend," who instantly began looking me over like a piece of fruit in the produce section. Probably to check for signs of serial killer potential. I got the sense that I wasn't exactly the kind of guy the lady usually gravitated towards, but I seemed to get a stamp of approval because we were left to depart of our own volition. And depart we did.

As we walked away, chants of "mee-no, mee-no, mee-no" reverberated off the walls. I don't think the lady knew my last name then (or maybe ever) so she might not have understood they were in praise of me. Even if she did, I didn't care; I felt like a baseball player who just hit his first career home run. In retrospect, this may explain why the night turned out the way it did. 

We went back to her apartment, and the first thing she wanted was not naked time but chicken fingers. This was slightly confusing but understandable; hey, you gotta eat. So we traipsed to a restaurant down the street to see if they were still open. They were, and we quickly gorged on breaded poultry.

I was still hanging around after late-night food, so she had no choice but to invite me into her bed. She put on a Will Ferrell movie, either Anchorman or Old School, and a brief bit of hijinks ensued. Emphasis on brief; it was clear pretty quickly that she was ready for me to leave, and in accordance with the law and good manners I've never been one to ignore those kind of cues.

I actually don't recall offering up even a single word of protest or confusion; the night was such a whirlwind of unexpectedness that I certainly wasn't going to act like I belonged there. So off I went into the very cold, very late Boston night. Luckily it was only a 10-minute walk to my own place, and my belly was full of processed fowl.

She'd given me her number at the bar, which I dialed a few days later to see if she'd like to get a drink or hang out sometime. Never did receive a reply; given how our evening ended, I probably shouldn't have expected one.

I have no idea what I did to deserve that bit of "success"; I've never been able to recreate the experience. Perhaps I exuded some sort of confidence that's impossible to summon consciously; perhaps she was drunk and I happened to be in her line of sight. But either way, I heartily encourage all men to be approached by beautiful women at bars. At the very least, it makes for a hell of a story.

October 9, 2013

The day the hockey died.

I grew up in a period of hockey excellence.

From 1994 to 2004, the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs every season. They went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995, 2000, and 2004. No trophies, sure, but it was still a stretch where the team finished no lower than second in the Atlantic Division.

They weren't afraid to make big moves, pulling off the blockbuster that brought Eric Lindros to town and trading Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour at the height of their talents for several other high-profile players (John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau) who would power the team going forward. And while signings like Chris Gratton and John Vanbiesbrouck flopped, there was always plenty of money (and young talent) available to fill any voids.

But the scales never tipped fully in their favor. LeClair and Desjardins proved to be exquisite second bananas during the Lindros era, but the Flyers consistently failed to best superior teams in Detroit or New Jersey. And soon after the 2003-2004 playoffs, a remarkable stretch that led to Phil Esposito dubbing him "the most dominating player I ever saw," Primeau suffered a debilitating concussion that abruptly ended his career.

In a way, the loss of Primeau (nine games into the post-lockout 2005-2006 season) was the beginning of the end. Several talented players (Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg) were dumped for a song. And the ones who survived, well, they didn't exactly become the faces of the franchise.

The team missed the playoffs in 2007. They collapsed in 2011 after a 47-win regular season. And more than a few questionable decisions were made along the way.

It all came to a head on Tuesday morning, when head coach Peter Laviolette was fired three games into the season. Rather than bash how Laviolette handled a floundering team, fans and the media alike took another stance: "This organization is a disaster."

A little over three years ago, the Flyers were two wins from the Stanley Cup. In 2012, they pulled out a remarkably sloppy but entertaining series against the feisty (and, in many people's opinions, Cup-bound) Pittsburgh Penguins. That's not the usual recent resume of a disaster.

But very few disagree with the sentiment that the Philadelphia Flyers have lost their place as one of hockey's great franchises. They used to be admired for strong, decisive decisions. Now they're mocked for knee-jerk moves that we question from day one.

Trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for a handful of young guns (Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn) that could've conceivably led the way for years to come? That only looks like a mistake because Jonathan Quick won those two a Cup the next season in Los Angeles.

But signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract? Trading James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn? Dumping Sergei Bobrovsky on Columbus for nothing, seemingly just to keep Bryz's mental state intact? Letting influential veterans like Jaromir Jagr walk? Placing any sort of post-2010 faith in Michael Leighton?

Once upon a time, I praised the Flyers for being "stubborn but aggressive." I thought they were one of the few sports franchises that truly went all out, every season, in an attempt to win a championship. But I also condemned them for forcing young players into roles they couldn't quite handle, for valuing size and grit over speed and talent, for refusing (or being unable) to develop young goaltenders in such a pressure-packed environment.

These flaws remain. And in the era of the salary cap, there are no more quick fixes. Invest in the wrong group and you're doomed. Besides Voracek, the young players haven't improved. In many areas, they've regressed. The defense is patchwork at best, a handful of slightly above-average guys who lack basic puck-handling skills. Once upon a time, we thought Braydon Coburn would become the total package. Now I wonder what the team can get for a 28-year-old who's been stagnant for three years.

As a friend of mine, a die-hard Boston Bruins fan, remarked on Tuesday afternoon, "If Chris Pronger were here, this never would've happened." And he's probably right; Pronger's talent, mixed with zero tolerance for bullshit, might've been the force that Laviolette needed to stay alive and turn this team around.

But Chris Pronger will never play in the NHL again. And Shea Weber isn't walking through that door to save the day, no matter how many times you call sports radio and ask about trading for him.

Now a smart coach pays the price for his mediocre roster. Maybe Ed Snider can't, in fact, fire the players; maybe Craig Berube will wake everyone up; maybe the youngsters really couldn't thrive in Laviolette's system. But it seems to me that we're viewing the dying gasps of a once-proud organization, one that might need to suffer though an extended dark period before everyone sees the light and realizing that whatever methods they're relying on are no longer working.

September 24, 2013

We love you, Charlie Manuel.

Charlie ManuelThe photograph on the right adorns the otherwise relatively bare walls of my Washington, DC apartment. It's of a 64-year-old man -- currently aged 69 -- on the happiest day in recent Philadelphia sports history, and the second happiest day of my life. It cost me $4 on eBay. I wouldn't sell it for the world.

Charlie Manuel stepped down as Phillies manager back on Friday, August 16. He went 780-636 in Philadelphia, winning one World Series and retiring as the most successful skipper in the team's history.

He was not a master strategist. His teams often won in spite of his tactical decisions; starters were left in too long, massive platoon splits were ignored in favor of "riding the hot hand" or "trusting his guys."

His final squad, the 2013 Phillies, proved to be painfully flawed. But they weren't helped along by Charlie's unwavering faith in broken players like Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard. He stuck with them through thick and thin, despite overwhelming evidence that they were nothing but shells of their former selves.

But he was never the man to invigorate a struggling franchise. He was a committed, supportive manager who believed in his boys and loved hitting. Give him a bushel of power bats and some decent starters and he'll whip them into a contender that you could never quite count out.

And the World Series champions of 2008 were exactly that. Charlie didn't have the bushel of aces that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would acquire in later years, but he did have one (Cole Hamels) who never lost and three other starters (Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton) who provided consistent quality starts.

And then, perhaps, most importantly, he had JC Romero for the seventh, Ryan Madson for the eighth and Brad Lidge for the ninth. Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin could pop in for some mop-up innings or face a tough righty early on, but otherwise the bullpen was set it and forget it. And that's just the way Charlie liked it.

The offense was even better. Chase Utley (.915 OPS) was a superstar, and Ryan Howard (.881 OPS) wasn't far behind. Pat Burrell (.875 OPS) more than held down left field for the last time; once Jayson Werth (.861 OPS) took over in right field around August, all tinkering was officially over.

Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Werth, Feliz, Ruiz.

According to Baseball Reference, they only lined up 10 times in that order throughout 2008's 162-game regular season. But they were all set by October, when it really counted.

Everyone remembers what happened next. Brett Myers drawing his world-famous walk off CC Sabathia. Shane Victorino's subsequent grand slam. Matt Stairs rips one deep into the night. Joe Blanton's homer, Geoff Jenkins' "leadoff" double, Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske and hugging Carlos Ruiz from his knees.

It was amazing. I laughed, I cried, I hugged everyone in sight for weeks. And we owe so much of that pure unadulterated joy to Charlie Manuel.

Maybe another manager could've led that same team to victory. But we were stuck with Charlie, which seemed like a mess in the early going but turned into magic before long. He was folksy, he was charming, he was smarter than he looked (and sounded). He was unique, and while we didn't appreciate him right away he soon found a path into our hearts.

I wrote this because I wanted to say goodbye to Charlie in my own way. The Phillies have become mostly unwatchable at this point, and I blame Manuel for very little of it. He was a man out of time, plugging holes with mediocre minor leaguers when he used to slot in potential All-Stars. At age 69, with Ryne Sandberg waiting in the wings, it was time to say goodbye.

But that didn't make it any easier. The state of despair when Charlie took over, and the state of bliss that held for most of his tenure, couldn't be more apples and oranges. The Phillies used to be the laughingstock of baseball; they were slightly above middling in the early 2000s. Then they found a manager who helped change all that, a captain who steered the ship to glory.

Charlie Manuel was that captain, and I'll never forget what he brought to the city of Philadelphia and its fans. We'll always love you, Charlie.

September 10, 2013

Once you pop.

Football sucked.

Twenty-three months ago, I admitted to the world that I preferred NFL RedZone to the Philadelphia Eagles. I was pilloried by many, Philly fans and general football enthusiasts alike.

Twelve months ago, I decided to throw my faith behind Andy Reid one more time. This was a mistake. A big mistake. But at least I was no longer alone in my disgust.

The once-proud Eagles franchise had sunk to the bottom of the National Football League. There were expected to be few survivors.

So we said goodbye to Andy, and we hoped it would get better before it got worse. Despite knowing full well that, even in today's wacky NFL, that's not usually how it goes.

There's always a team that moves from the rubble to the Ritz. But it's not usually one that blew an entire draft, that spent millions on an untested college coach, that barely improved their defensive backfield, that brought back an oft-injured veteran and moderately successful third-round pick to compete for the most important job in an extremely complicated offense.

Well, the Eagles still aren't ready to take up residence in any fancy penthouse. Their ceiling is probably 9-7, and that's with a lot going right (and a hearty handful of important players staying healthy).

But, wow. Last night was something else. I forgot you were allowed to have fun while watching your hometown team play football. Encouraged to, even.

I walked to my friend's house in my stylish Eagles-themed Hawaiian-style blouse (purchased from the wrong section, obviously, during an ill-fated Kohl's trip), embracing the occasional stare from fellow DC residents in RG3 jerseys. Not feeling confident in the least; just filled with the promise of a new season.

"At least it'll be different," I thought. Not necessarily better, but unlike what we'd been slogging through for the last few years. That would be progress.

But I flew home on a cloud (albeit a bit more modestly, being that it was relatively late and the local team had just lost) because I'd just seen the most exciting first half of Philadelphia football since Donovan McNabb was rewarded for his contract extension with 59 Michael Vick points in his face.

It was everything you hoped it would be. It got the entire football-loving nation buzzing. And, even though the more rational among us realize that this year's team is still fatally flawed, it brought back hope that maybe the Eagles were once again ahead of the curve.

Granted, the second half was considerably rockier. The defense is still largely unproven (at best). And there are certainly questions about how long the Chipper's boys can keep up a record-setting pace on offense.

But there was Chip Kelly in his sexy visor, using ridiculous Philadelphia-themed flash cards to call plays, running his boys out there like a well-oiled machine, making everyone believe again.

And with San Diego coming to town on Sunday, they of the massive Monday night meltdown, 2-0 is not out of the question.

Most people -- present company included -- would've been happy with 7-9. Now we can dream a little bigger. But, like a starving man who's handed a bowl of soup, we're not going to slam the bowl down and demand more.

That kind of greed comes later. For now, a nice hearty gulp will do.

August 19, 2013

When all the answers, they don't amount to much.

The logical thing to do was start dating.

We'd gone out numerous times, from drinks to movies to dinner and back again. On a physical level, she was very much my type. And she seemed to like me, at least enough to occasionally get naked in my presence.

For a while, in that nebulous period between college and true adulthood -- when you're underpaid and overworked and just trying to cover the cable and Internet bill every month -- it seemed like that might be enough.

But of course, it wasn't. This is not to slight her in the least; she was a very enjoyable and attractive young woman. But she wasn't what I was looking for; nor was I anything close to her soul mate. And in the back of our minds, where sweet logic that we didn't want to hear was whispered, we both knew this.

But it's easy to shut those little lingering voices up with wine, or mild drug use, or by closing yourselves off to reality and keeping busy. So that's what we did. We saw each other a few times a week, every outing as mildly pleasant as the last, and eventually forged a bond built on acceptance that this all was fine for now.

And it's not that dating for fun's sake is wrong; every relationship doesn't need to have the long haul as its end game. But to ignore this, or to realize the truth with great clarity but refuse to address it, can bring about a lot of strange and lonesome days.

I remember one happy hour with her work friends; it was clear from the moment we walked in the door that I didn't really feel like meeting them (and she didn't really feel like introducing me). But we went through the motions, smiling and sipping beers as if it were the most enjoyable evening in the world.

At the end of the night, she turned to me and said, "So I guess we should be a couple."

"I guess so," I responded. And there it was.

Fast forward a few weeks, and all my college friends are planning a night on the town. They want to meet my new lady, and I find this plan to be acceptable. I'm not sure if I want to show her off, but there doesn't seem to be much wiggle room.

So we head to my friend's place, and then to a bar. Drinks and witty banter are flowing freely, at least between some of us. She was clearly uncomfortable, and that made me unhappy. I recall trying to include her in the conversation, but I'm sure my efforts were transparent and forced. I drank heavily to compensate, and ended up extremely intoxicated.

Eventually, we left a bit early to head home. She made the very reasonable suggestion to get a cab; I disagreed. She pointed out that we were miles from our apartments and she was in very uncomfortable shoes; I demanded that we walk for at least a few minutes.

She rightly accused me of being a jerk. I wrongly, and loudly, accused her of being an idiot. She turned her back, got in the next cab, and left without me. I walked home at 2 AM, fully convinced I was in the right.

I woke up at about 11 AM, fully convinced I was in the wrong. I brought her flowers and apologized for being an asshole. She accepted my apology, politely asked me to leave a few minutes later, and broke up with me over Gchat the next day.

I never saw her again. Additional text message and email apologies, mostly delivered out of lingering guilt, were accepted but unremarked upon.

I was the bad guy; this is undeniable. I don't think I've ever been that directly responsible for the end of a relationship, before or since. But no less than two months later, I met the girl that I would end up dating for over three years. And I remembered that it's OK to aim high; that being young and confused about where you'll end up doesn't mean it's wise to ground yourself with any sort of unsatisfying anchor.

Every relationship is a learning experience, especially when they end with you screaming in the street.