CLEARWATER, Fla. - Charlie Manuel was saying the sideshow that follows a championship team wouldn't distract his Phillies when the sound tech from HBO's
crouched and adjusted the settings on the microphone attached to the manager.
That's right. Manuel was wearing The Wire for his Entourage from HBO. If that's not enough to Curb Your Enthusiasm for the Phillies' ability to focus on the task of defending their 2008 title, consider the giant in the clubhouse.
The giant has a name. It is Kevin Nash, and those who follow professional wrestling were mighty impressed that the 6-foot-10 behemoth was kidding around with various players. Nash wasn't just chilling. Like everyone else in North America, circa now, he was being followed by a guy with a boom microphone and another guy with a spiffy little digital camera.
Who knows what today will bring? The American Idol judges? Paris Hilton? Jessica Simpson, consulting with Ryan Howard and Brett Myers on their weight-loss secrets? Rush Limbaugh, criticizing Cole Hamels for being a lefty?
How about Bam and Wee Man and the rest of the Jackass crew? They could launch themselves off the Jugs machine and see if Shane Victorino can catch them.
In fairness, there were people of substance in camp, too. Several active U.S. servicemen were guests and had a chance to meet Manuel and some of the players. The HBO crew captured every darn minute.
Given Manuel's mantra of putting 2008 in the past and working just as hard in 2009, you had to wonder about the impact of all these distractions.
"This is the first time we've had it," Manuel said of the sideshow. "It goes along with winning the World Series, I guess. There were some guys who were in the service out there today. I just got through talking to them. They came over to watch us and they talked about us winning last year. Everything is focused on what we did and expectations of what people now think we can do. It's all good."
It might be. It might not be. The point is, it's all very different. Manuel isn't just the Phillies' manager. He's the Phillies' manager with a production crew shadowing his every move. He isn't talking to a player hitting in the cage; he's talking to millions of potential viewers.
Just before camp opened, Hamels spent a couple of hours with Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss for the cover shot of the Feb. 23 issue. In the story, which details Hamels' wild ride after being named the World Series MVP, the 24-year-old lefthander acknowledges that all the extra "opportunities" were more taxing than he expected. He said he'd learned not to overdo it and was looking forward to getting back to baseball.
A year ago, Hamels was a young pitcher trying to stay healthy for a full season and establish himself in the big leagues. Now, he's been on Letterman and the world knows he and his celebrity wife are trying to adopt an African AIDS orphan. That's a big change for anyone to handle.
"That's part of what goes into it," Manuel said, "as long as we can handle it in the right way. Keep our desire and our attitude and things will work out for us."
As he talked, the HBO crew scurried around Manuel and a group of not-interested-in-prime-time reporters, banging into walls and searching for different angles. You wanted to double-check to make sure the show wasn't called Surreal Sports.
As strange as the sideshow is, business seems to be going on as usual under the big top itself. Hamels may be on the threshold of superstardom, but is working as hard and as diligently as ever. Howard lost weight and is doing extra work on his defense. Myers might have regretted slimming down because he looked as if he wanted to go a round or two with Nash.
"Everyone's the same," Jimmy Rollins said. "Nobody's walking around with their chest out or a ballooned head. Everybody's still working. . . . Like I said, we're still trying to win respect. We know we're winners and people know we have a good team, but we're fighting for respect as a champion."
"I'm actually proud of the guys, how they've come into camp," Chase Utley said. "It would be very easy to look back on last season and say, 'We're the world champions,' and sit on it. Brett looks like a new person. Ryan looks extremely strong - and scary."
The cameras and celebrities and boom mikes won't be around for the long grind of the regular season. It will be that, the 162 games, that will test the Phillies' mettle.
Funny thing is, they would love to have all these distractions back next February. That would mean they had won another World Series.