The Phillies' Aces of Hearts

The Five Musketeers - (from left) Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels) - meet the press in Clearwater following workouts. Halladay, Oswalt, Lee and Hamels have made sure thatBlanton, the fifth starter, be included in all the hoopla.
The Five Musketeers - (from left) Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels) - meet the press in Clearwater following workouts. Halladay, Oswalt, Lee and Hamels have made sure thatBlanton, the fifth starter, be included in all the hoopla.
Posted: February 15, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Every honeymoon should start with some quality fourplay. And yesterday, what could be the best collection of starting pitchers ever assembled stood at the media altar and delivered a big man-hug.

The Four Aces Plus Joe did everything but roll over and smoke cigarettes.

Hey, if it was good for the Phillies' 24-karat-gold rotation, it was probably good for you, as well.

On the sun-scrubbed day pitchers and catchers began a journey Phillies Nation seems confident will not end until the leaves of brown have tumbled down, what used to be known as R2C2 and other quad-leaning and equally lame nicknames is off the boards.

Un-four-gettable . . . We hardly knew ye.

Thank God.

Nope, by decree issued by his moundmates before the first official workout, Joe Blanton is no longer the Fifth Beatle. But he is the Fifth Musketeer.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton will stride into the baseball history book that began with a blank page under the heading, Chapter One, Day One, as a quintet. A Royal Flush, as it were.

Fourplay just became fiveplay. Lower and slower . . .

When the Comcast SportsNet folks, here to chronicle the gathering of Cy Young Award candidates, attempted to set up a four-way rap session with Michael Barkann in the visiting team clubhouse at Bright House Field, he was told, "No Joe, no go . . . " The fourmer foursome will not so much as sign group autographs unless Blanton is included.

This is the most attention the Number 5 has received in Phillies circles since the first day of Spring Training 1983, when Pete Rose cracked that newcomer Von Hayes, traded by the Indians for five players, should wear uniform number "541."

A nickname was born and Hayes still has possession of it.

The platinum pitchers sat in a dignified row like a grand jury panel about to be sworn in, from left to right, Halladay, Blanton, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels. Scott Palmer served as traffic cop and MC.

The throng of local and national media types included former Daily News prodigy Gary Smith, who went from summer intern to the Eagles beat faster than he could say, "Leonard Tose likes to hit on 12." Sports Illustrated has sent Smith, one of the most gifted magazine writers of all time, to put this momentous baseball story in its proper - or improper - context.

Blank page or not, it needs to be pointed out that when pitchers and catchers showed up for the first workout a year ago, Cliff Lee was in Arizona, wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform and trying to put a happy face on his obvious discomfort after being dealt - rudely dealt, some felt - to a bad team for three minor league non-entities who elicited a massive WTF from a fan-base-turned-mutinous.

The dizzying events that led to Lee's totally unexpected return to the ballclub he had come to love has been well documented. It was the reason Bright House Field was the center of the baseball universe yesterday.

The lefthander gave props to what he felt was the most impressive aspect of his return to the fold: the way Ruben Amaro Jr., and a negotiating team that included assistant GM Scott Proefrock, flew under the radar during the din of public speculation as to where free agent Lee would be hanging his hat this season. The smart money favored the Yankees because that is always the way to bet when a star player is out there trolling for a big payday.

But Amaro learned when you cut away the rhetoric, rumor and gamesmanship that wraps the winter-meetings season in a haze of innuendo, Lee had only one preferred destination in mind. The end game led to MLB.com Phillies reporter Todd Zolecki breaking the story after midnight Dec. 14, creating an instant Greek Chorus of "Can you believe it?" euphoria.

"[The Phillies jumping into the negotiations] definitely happened late in the process," Lee said. " . . . They really kept it hush-hush and that helped their chances, definitely helped a lot."

The stealth-bomber, late smart-bomb strike has become the hallmark of Amaro's soft-walking, but, at the same time, aggressive style. It is leakproof and efficient, media frustrating to be sure in an era where a ton of rumor is worth less than an ounce of reality.

There used to be a derisive saying about the University of Oklahoma that the administration wanted the university to become an institution the football team could be proud of.

It seems to be equally important for Charlie Manuel's position players to provide an offense the pitching rotation can be proud of.

An offense riddled with injuries, including major DL stints by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard - a table setter and two RBI bellwethers - did not over-support Halladay or Hamels last season. Halladay had the stuff to challenge 30 victories, but not the run support. And Hamels could have won 18-20 with a few runs here or there.

There were five aces seated at a table in the Bright House media dining room yesterday holding forth in a scene without precedent in baseball history.

Confronted by all this mega-salaried pitching splendor, it was easy to forget that when the long season unfolds, they will be relying on eight guys to prop them up with legs, leather and lumber.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/BillConlin.

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