Five Young Guns

The young core of the Phillies: The grinning giant, Ryan Howard; “Hollywood” Cole Hamels; Jimmy Rollins, the pulse of the team; energetic Brett Myers; and deceptively quiet Chase Utley.

Posted: April 02, 2007

They are here because they are immensely talented.

But it's their youth and potential that make people wonder just how much they can accomplish together.

It's the swagger of the shortstop, the cocksureness of the two pitchers, the killer intensity of the second baseman and the big smile, laugh and power of the first baseman that make fans believe that something truly special can happen here.

Jimmy Rollins. Cole Hamels. Brett Myers. Chase Utley. Ryan Howard.

This homegrown and hungry pool of talent at the core of the Phillies oozes personality and appeal. More important, the youthful Phillies insist they are poised to make a lot of noise in the National League East, starting today when they open the 2007 season against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park.

Just ask Rollins, the team pulse and fearless prognosticator.

The shortstop made the proclamation heard 'round baseball back on that chilly January afternoon while seated at a table inside the Diamond Club at Citizens Bank Park.

"We're the team to beat."

Rollins hasn't backed down.

"A challenge was issued," he reiterated earlier this spring. "I announced we had a good team, and people took heed to it. If I said I was the greatest home-run hitter, people would just laugh at me and say I was crazy. But people listened because there's something to it.

"They took notice."

They definitely noticed.

The Mets. The Braves.

Teammates.

Fans.

"We thought it," Myers said. "He just said it."

Phillies fans watched the front office blow up its team last July and announce it might not be able to win until 2008 at the earliest. But then the Phillies took their core of Rollins, Myers, Howard, Utley and Hamels - Rollins and Utley are the oldest at 28, with Hamels the pup at 23 - and surged into contention in the National League wild-card race. They were 49-55 at last season's trade deadline, but blew through the last two months of the season at a 36-22 clip, the second-best record in that period in the league.

They held the wild-card lead with seven games to play, but finished 3-4 for another near miss in a recent history of near misses to extend the franchise's postseason drought to 13 years.

But that core is back, and the Phillies added a few pieces they think could put them over the top.

"I think we have an exciting team," Utley said. "If I'm a baseball fan, it's something I would like to watch. And we're still growing. We're still maturing. We're still trying to get better. To come up through the organization with these guys is a pretty cool thing. The longer you're around guys, the more comfortable you get. And I think the more comfortable you are, the better you're going to play."

If the Phillies start the season fast they could grab the city by its throat and hold on through October.

If not, the city could be grabbing for theirs come June.

"We haven't won yet," Rollins said. "Right now it's just a fact that they believe in our team. They believe in Ryan Howard. They believe in Chase Utley. They believe in Freddy Garcia. They believe in Cole Hamels. They believe in Brett Myers. And I think they believe in me."

The belief is rooted in their talent.

Howard won the league's rookie-of-the-year and MVP awards in his first two seasons. The only other players to accomplish that feat in baseball are Fred Lynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki.

Rollins and Utley complete a talented trio of infielders that outperformed every other trio in baseball last season. They outproduced the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi. They outproduced the New York Mets' Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and David Wright.

Myers and Hamels open the season as the rotation's 1-2 punch.

Myers appears primed for a breakout year. He has never won more than 14 games in a season, but was challenged in the off-season by manager Charlie Manuel to come to camp in shape and elevate himself to one of the game's elite pitchers.

Hamels had a remarkable second half for a rookie and he's confident that he can win 20 games - and that's no easy task for a sophomore.

"Clearly the interest in the club is high," Phillies president David Montgomery said. "I think that's because they see a combination of people they think are going to be with us for a very long time. Rollins, Hamels, Utley, Myers and Howard are part of that. People say they're going to be Phillies for the next several years."

Myers signed a three-year, $25.75 million contract extension in the off-season and can't become a free agent until after 2009. Rollins can't become a free agent until after 2010 at the earliest, later if the Phillies pick up his 2011 option. Howard won't become a free agent until after 2011. Hamels won't become a free agent until after 2012.

Utley signed a seven-year, $85 million extension in the off-season. Phillies players have learned that general manager Pat Gillick is not a fan of no-trade clauses. But the Utley deal and its ability to keep him in Phillies pinstripes through 2013 shows a willingness to commit to talent.

Unlike some Phillies stars of recent vintage (Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen), these guys want to be here. There's no grousing about the organization's commitment to winning, just a contagious belief that all the right parts, and all the right players, are already here - and in it for the long haul.

These are the players - along with centerfielder Aaron Rowand - Phillies fans most closely identify with.

The top five jerseys sold at the team's store at Citizens Bank Park are those of Utley, Howard, Rollins, Rowand and Pat Burrell. The top five T-shirts sold are Utley, Howard, Rowand, Rollins and Hamels.

"We want a lot of people to be able to relate to us," Howard said. "And fans want us to be able to relate to them. Philadelphia is a blue-collar, hardworking town. As players, we know that. We know what we're getting into when we put on that uniform. They want us to go out there and play how they feel or how they work. And that's hard. And we do that. We keep that in mind. We want them to know we're working hard and that we're trying to get the job done."

The core is an interesting mix.

Utley is quiet, but capable of raising hell when needed.

Howard says Utley has a great sense of humor, which not a lot of people get to see. Rollins joked with Utley this spring that he actually could hear his voice from his side of the clubhouse.

Keep in mind their lockers are about 10 paces apart.

Rollins has the cool spikes. He has the cool glove. He makes the big predictions.

"Jimmy is Jimmy," Howard said. "Jimmy is the man. He is the smooth. He is the suave."

Howard carries a permanent smile with a big laugh. He'll show up to the ballpark in his Thundercats T-shirt and grin when somebody recognizes it. Keep on your toes around him. He is capable of dropping a rap lyric or an unexpected comment at any moment to keep the mood light.

"Jimmy and Ryan bring that bling bang. They bring the fun side," Hamels said.

Teammates refer to Hamels as "Hollywood" because he, well, looks how somebody from Southern California is supposed to look.

"The long hair. Swimmer's build. Probably would look good in a magazine," Rollins said.

"I guess it's better than no nickname," Hamels joked.

And Myers?

Where to start?

Pure energy. Always on the move. Always saying something. Always trying to get a rise out of somebody.

"Brett is a character all his own," Howard said. "He brings a lot of energy to the table."

He pauses for a moment.

"Whether you want it or not," he said with a laugh, "he's going to bring it."

Myers is not alone.

"You have players like Chase and Aaron," Hamels said. "Chase will take out a catcher and Aaron will run into a wall to catch one. And obviously you have the pitchers who will pitch as long and as hard as they can. We have Flash Gordon with the fan club he has. There's just something to like every inning. There's always something to look for and something to be excited about."

The personalities blossomed last season after the Phillies held that July 31 trade-deadline fire sale.

"You take away the veteran players of the old regime, the players who came up under them under a whole different staff," Rollins said. "You take that shade off the lamp, and the light can be seen."

"There's a lot more joking around," Rowand said. "There's a lot more laughing. It's not so dead. It's a fun environment to come to every day. It's no fun when you walk into the clubhouse and it's a morgue."

Rowand tried to relate the importance of clubhouse chemistry to the everyday Joe.

"Do you want to go sit in your cubicle from 9 to 5 and not have any interaction with anybody?" he said. "Or would you rather be a fireman getting to hang out with the guys, laughing and joking until the bell rings?"

Rowand's description of the clubhouse as a morgue wasn't far off.

"I like this clubhouse a lot," Gillick said. "Most of them want to win. I don't think there's a lot of ego in that clubhouse. There are certainly some players down there who certainly have confidence and ability, but they don't have an ego to massage all the time.

"It's like anything else. When things are going well any problems seem to take care of themselves. It's just when you run into a bad stretch that people that are on the same page and all pulling together finding some way to get out of a bad streak. So I think that's when things go tough, that's when the character really shows up."

The blend of talent, youth and personality makes this a likeable team. Hitting coach Milt Thompson sees a similarity between these Phillies and the '93 Phils - the organization's last team to make the postseason.

Now that team had personality. Dutch. The Dude. Wild Thing. Kruk. Head.

"The confidence level this year," Thompson said of what reminds him about the '93 team. "Knowing that they have a good team and they need to go out there and execute is the key. They came close the last couple years, but I think they know the importance of getting off to a good start this year. There's a lot of high energy out there now. Bobby [Abreu] is a great player, but the whole energy on this team changed when you threw [Shane] Victorino out there.

"You have guys running all over the place, making plays and stuff. It fires the team up. I know there's a lot of excitement going into this year, and these guys feel and know it."

We'll see whether it translates into victories.

We'll see whether Rollins and his teammates can back up his words, or whether Rollins outkicked his coverage.

"You can have a team that you like and if they don't win, they might as well not even play," Rollins said. "Just go drink beer with everybody. It's a good thing we are liked, but we have a good team, a team that people can honestly believe will win. Not just a team that is going to be there from April until October until football starts.

"We have a product out there that they can come see and enjoy and head back to the house happy."


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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