Second of two parts. Read Part One here.
WASHINGTON - Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is a lifelong Phillies fan.
In Part 2 of an interview in his chambers with the Daily News, he discusses his changing impression of Charlie Manuel, his favorite players then and now, the Cliff Lee trade, two very different encounters with the Phillie Phanatic, his first impressions of Roy Halladay, the designated hitter . . . and even Donovan McNabb.
DN: A lot of Phillies fans didn't think too much of Charlie Manuel when he was first hired as manager but have come to really like him. Did you go through the same process?
Justice Alito: [Laughing] You know, every fan loves the manager when he wins and hates the manager when he doesn't win. And I think that's the fan's prerogative to be kind of unfair to the manager.
I think it's obvious at this point that Charlie does things that are extremely valuable and that are hard to kind of identify. The managers who are the great tacticians make fancy moves. Tony La Russa, for example. People see that and they see that he's thinking many steps ahead and he does some unorthodox things. And I think he is a great manager.
But there's obviously something a lot more to the job, particularly I would think these days with highly paid and highly professional players. To keep everybody sort of on an even keel - don't get too high, don't get too low - and to keep harmony. Looking at it from afar, that's what I imagine that he does. Obviously, there aren't a lot of people who can do that. There are a lot of people who can't do that.
DN: Is Richie Ashburn still your favorite all-time player?
Alito: Yes, he has to be because he was my childhood hero.
DN: Did you have a chance to go to the public memorial service after he passed away in 1997?
Alito: I did not. I met him only once and it was during Dream Week.
DN: Were you at Nationals Park last April when Harry Kalas passed away?
Alito: I'm glad I was not at the game. I was [in chambers] and I was working. My son e-mailed me and told me what had happened. I can't tell you how many hours of my life I've spent listening to Harry and Richie. They were a great pair.
With the MLB package I'll hear announcers from all over the country and you can see the difference between guys like Harry and Richie, who were so professional, and some of the others. Of course, I'm biased because they're not my teams. But I think they go overboard in rooting for their teams.
DN: Who's your favorite player now?
Alito: I wouldn't say a single player. There are a number who I like very much. I have great admiration for the way Chase Utley plays. Really a thinking player, also with great skill. Jimmy Rollins really looked good on Opening Day. I hope that's an omen of what's to come. I think he's obviously critical to the kind of spirit of the team. Ryan Howard is a tremendous force. He really looked good on Opening Day. [Smiling] I was wondering whether that infield hit he got was the first one he's ever gotten. He really hustled down the line for that. He looks like he's in great shape.
DN: Over the years, has there been a Phillies player who just made you want to scream?
Alito: Yeah. In fact, I mentioned it to him on the radio and he took it well. Mitch Williams. Even when things turned out well, it was always an adventure.
A game I will never forget but would probably like to forget was the 15-14 game against the Blue Jays [at Veterans Stadium in the 1993 World Series]. I entered a lottery and won the opportunity to get those tickets. My son and I went. He was 7 years old and we were there practically all night [with the rain delays] and it was just devastating to me. They had a five-run lead going into the eighth inning and couldn't hold it.
DN: Did your son go to school the next day?
Alito: [Laughing] He went in late. I wrote him a note.
DN: Do you have any favorite baseball books or movies?
Alito: The baseball movie I liked the best is 'Eight Men Out.' I thought that was very good. Or maybe I'll take that back. 'Bang the Drum Slowly' was really a great movie. It's a great movie as well as being a great baseball movie.
DN: Do you find yourself having any interest in the Nationals since they play 2 miles away?
Alito: You can never change your baseball loyalties. [But] I think eventually they'll improve. When they bring up this new phenom [righthander Stephen Strasburg], sure, I'd love to go see him play.
There are visiting players I would go out of my way to see. My son and I were trying to go to a game last year when [Giants Cy Young Award winner Tim] Lincecum was pitching against the Nationals, but we miscalculated when his turn in the rotation was going to come up.
DN: Please tell the story about the time you were surprised by the Phanatic.
Alito: We have a tradition of giving a welcoming dinner to the new justice. And the next most junior justice arranges things. I actually was in charge of arranging the dinner we had a couple weeks ago for Justice Sotomayor. Justice Breyer arranged the dinner for me in October 2006.
It was a very nice dinner and toward the end before dessert, Steve said, 'And now we have this very special guest who's come to help welcome Justice Alito.' [Laughing] He opened the door and the Phillie Phanatic came in and gave me a big hug. And it was great.
I've been close to him on one other occasion. The Phillies let me throw out the first pitch at a game on Father's Day 2006. I had been very physically close to the Phanatic at that time and I could tell that on on-the-field uniform is fragrant, as you would expect. But when he came here he smelled like a flower, so either he got it dry-cleaned or he has his traveling suit.
DN: Do you like the wild card and interleague play?
Alito: I like the wild card. With the number of teams they have now, it really makes things interesting. So I do like that. There's a little bit of unfairness in the matchups you get. The wild-card team is almost always a team that's very hot at the end of the year and can be quite formidable, particularly in the early rounds of the playoffs. The team with the best record may have a week or so, sometimes even longer [during the postseason]. So they're rested but, on the other hand, they can be kind of rusty. And they may go against a wild-card team that's really hot, so that's why the wild cards often do very well. But in general, I like that.
I could do without interleague play. There are a few matchups that everybody likes. But there are a lot that have no attraction. And I think it actually introduces an element of unfairness into the competition for the playoffs. And this hurts the Phillies because the teams they play are generally very good teams. This year they're playing the Yankees and the Red Sox. The Cardinals always play the Royals. The Yankees play the Mets, so that's a tough thing for the Mets. So there's a little unfairness in it. It's kind of arbitrary.
DN: It doesn't seem like there's a Phillies fan out there who doesn't think the Phillie should have kept Cliff Lee. Do you agree with that?
Alito: Well, I know why they didn't do it. As a fan, I'd like them to spend $300 million a year on salaries and keep Cliff Lee and sign a lot of [free agents]. I understand why they didn't do it, but it was hard to lose him. Particularly after the way he performed in the postseason. It was amazing.
I went to the first game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium and that was an amazing performance.
DN: But you're happy they got Roy Halladay, right?
Alito: The [Opening Day game against Washington] was the first full game I've seen him pitch. Not only does he have great stuff, but he's really thinking all the time about what he's doing. It seemed to me his approach to batters when nobody was on base was entirely different from when somebody got on base. Nobody on base, he was trying to be very efficient and get them out without too many pitches. When somebody got on base or got in scoring position, he was mixing in a lot more offspeed stuff. He's a hard guy to score runs off.
DN: What's your prediction for this year?
Alito: I'm optimistic. I think the Phillies will probably have about the same record as last year, which will require actually better performance than last year because the National League East, I think, is a tough division now. Atlanta is much improved. This new guy that they have, Jason Heyward, I saw him on TV in a spring-training game. He looks good.
Florida's got a good, young team. The Mets have to be healthier than they were last year. The Nationals are a little bit better. So I think it will be tough to win 93 games again. But I think barring injuries, knock on wood [tapping his knuckles on the wooden arm of his chair], I think they'll make the playoffs and they probably should win the division.
DN: Are you concerned about the bullpen?
Alito: I am. That's obviously the biggest question for the Phillies, how [Brad] Lidge in particular and [J.C.] Romero can come back from their injuries. I don't know to what degree Lidge's performance last year was due to his injuries. Nobody seems to have known about [the elbow problem] until the end of the year. And I hope [Cole] Hamels can come back.
DN: Another hot topic seems to be whether they can keep Jayson Werth after this season. Do you worry about that?
Alito: I do. I can see he's going to command a big salary if he has a year that's anything like last year. He'll certainly be in the Matt Holliday-Jason Bay ballpark, which is a lot of money.
DN: One non-baseball question, if you don't mind. You're a Philadelphia sports fan who now lives and works in Washington. What did you think of the Donovan McNabb trade?
Alito: I think it will probably be good in the long term for the Eagles, and probably good for the Redskins as well. It's probably one of those situations where a change of scenery is a good thing. Fans get frustrated with McNabb although he's a great player. You see that in baseball too, sometimes, when there's a player who things haven't worked out quite the way people expected where he's playing. And when he's traded, it's a benefit to him.
DN: Finally, and this is kind of frivolous, but do you ever imagine what it would be like if the designed-hitter rule ever came before the Supreme Court?
Alito: [Laughing] I haven't thought about that. I don't know what I would say because the purist in me doesn't like to see changes like that. But it's not that exciting to see pitchers hit.
DN: Not even Joe Blanton in the World Series?
Alito: [Smiling] Roy Halladay looks like he's got a way to go. And also, this game has gotten so hard on pitchers, so skewed in favor of batters now, that I would hate to see something that kind of makes it harder for the pitchers.