TAMPA--As a reporter, it is my job to be skeptical of messages like "the Phillies have one of the best clubhouses in baseball, and many players want to play for the team." It's not that I'm supposed to be overly negative about something like that; I just have to make sure that it isn't mere spin, repeated so many times that it begins to feel like truth.
In the past week, I've had the chance to touch base with Cliff Lee and Chan Ho Park, two short-term visitors to the Philly area--and two guys who seem to wish they were in Clearwater this month. Both pitched well in 2009, and both hoped to return this season. Lee, of course, was part of the Halladay mega-deal. Park was, in Brad Lidge's estimation, "the MVP of our bullpen" last season, but the team did not re-sign him.
After failing to reach an agreement with agent Jeff Borris in December, the Phils moved on to sign Danys Baez and Jose Contreras instead. It was a gamble for the team, swapping a known quantity for two players yet to succeed in Philadelphia. And for Park, like Lee, it was extremely disappointing. The more you see former Phillies shake their heads, shrug, and say how much they loved it in that clubhouse, the more real the Phils current reputation seems.
Park was no exception. Standing in the locker room of the defending champs, dressed in the iconic pinstripes, Park made clear that he regretted leaving Philadelphia.
He began by saying the right things about becoming a Yankee. "They have the most history, and they are popular in the world, even in Korea," Park said. "When I grew up, they were a symbol--New York. Yankees."
But he spent most of his time yesterday talking about an off-season he called "frustrating."
"I had a wish after the season," he said. "Philadelphia was the no. 1 choice. I had a tough time leaving there. I had much support from fans and community, and I had the best teammates there, so..."
Well, he was asked, why didn't it work out with the Phils?
"Too late. Too late. Too late. It didn't work well in the beginning, and later on, too late," he said.
Basically, Park orginally expected a raise from the Phils, feeling that a strong performance had earned him more than the $2.5 million he made in 2009. His agents negotiated with Amaro through mid-December, and then the Phils decided to move on. Park was shocked.
"They were talking, and it didn't work," he said. "Trying to get a deal, and it didn't work out, and then later on they just gave up, and I lost."
He eventually signed for one year, $1.2 million to become a Yankees reliever. Park said that while he still preferred starting--and claimed to have drawn interest as a starter from several teams, though he declined to name those teams--he was more comfortable in the relief role than ever before.
"I knew a lot of teams were going to expect more" from him as a reliever, Park said. I" had success in the bullpen last year and the year before."
Park also addressed the criticism leveled by Charlie Manuel this winter. In complimenting Baez and Contreras as pitchers who would never refuse to take the ball, even if injured, Manuel was clearly taking a shot at Park. It is likely that Manuel's view of Park as a victim of frequent minor injuries contributed to the Phils lack of aggressiveness in pursuing the pitcher.
"I was disappointed in what he said," said Park. "That's what he thinks, but I don't think it has any meaning. He still is my favorite manager. I didn't talk to him, and I didn't believe it (when he first heard about the comments). But who cares? He's still my favorite manager. The whole team; they're the best. That's why it's so difficult to leave. The fans, especially the fans. They're the best.