Commentary: Phils-Mets Rivalry Gains Character

Not even a week into Spring Training, and baseball already has its first big storyline of the 2008 season (that doesn’t involve performance-enhancing substances).

The Phillies-Mets rivalry is in full swing.

Last year, Jimmy Rollins’ quote about the Phillies being “team to beat” (now Wikified) sent shockwaves throughout the NL East, but really, Rollins was merely voicing energy for his team. It was a rallying cry, a fresh opine from the mouth of someone who chose to be the leader of his team. Remember, before Rollins’ “team to beat” statement, the Phillies were non-descript, a team many pegged as led by Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, soft-spoken (or non-spoken) men who rarely sought attention.

And look what 200 days can do. Between the Abreu trade and the Phillies division-clinching win, the team seemed to show a splendid cohesiveness. Team leadership focus switched from Abreu and Burrell to Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand and of course, Rollins. Last season, despite all the curveballs (injuries, early struggles, the 10,000th loss hoopla), the team never seemed phased. Nobody was thrown under a bus, even though it would’ve been easy to brand Wes Helms, Jose Mesa or Adam Eaton as absolute failures. Heck, even when Brett Myers called a reporter a “retard,” nobody flinched. When Charlie Manuel pow-wowed with the team after the 4-11 start, nobody flinched. If you remember, Helms said it was — for lack of better words — a constructive dressing down led by Manuel and pitcher/wiseman Jamie Moyer.

Clearly the Phillies are a focused and friendly team. But in the last week, as the Phils have descended upon Clearwater, Fla., they’ve taken even greater strides to show their camaraderie. The “Man or Machine?” T-shirt is a classic boy’s club joke; that was topped in spades by the Kyle Kendrick Japan prank, which has received international attention. Cruel prank? Nah. Kendrick’s reaction — along with the awesome reactions from the Phils playing along — showed these guys are completely comfortable and there’s nowhere else they’d want to play.

It brings up a question debated throughout the offseason: Would Aaron Rowand’s loss cost the Phillies in clubhouse leadership? Many fans I spoke to actually took this factor most seriously when mulling losing Rowand. If the first week of camp is any indication, Rowand’s leadership won’t be hard to fill.

Simply put, Utley is the unspoken leader. He may not talk a big game — instead he straddles company line and presents himself like a polished role model — but his stick leads the charge. Ryan Howard also leads with his bat, but manages to sneak his childish heart into the scene. Rollins is the vocal leader, always one to project the team’s goals in bright lights. Even Burrell has become somewhat of an aging fireball, much like Todd Helton in Colorado.

Then there’s Myers. While he won’t strike any of us as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, he seems to be outstandingly comfortable in giving his opinion. His reaction to Carlos Beltran’s “team to beat” rebuttal, while smacking of some bullying, does have worth.

Yes, Beltran came out with his big words Saturday. To me, it seems like a casual chance to be funny, maybe even arrogant in the face of the Phillies. Beltran knew what he was saying, and while it shouldn’t be taken as a big deal, it should be seen as a shallow belch in the middle of the NL East chow line. Rollins, meanwhile, said he thought the Phils were the best team “on paper” in the division. It wasn’t a personal shot, it was a rally.

Who knows how 2008 will advance, but one thing’s for sure — the Phillies have the chemistry and talent to do greater damage. The Mets have the talent. We’ll let the play progress as it should.

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