Phillie-for-a-day Mike Alstott looked good at the plate Thursday as an invited guest of Philadelphia slugger Pat Burrell
Clemente Alvarez' 25th pitch on Thursday afternoon cleared the fence in the left-center power alley, landing in the construction zone just beyond Carpenter Field. The bat that sent it there belonged to Phillie slugger Pat Burrell, who swatted 37 homers in the bigs last year. In this case, however, the jet black, 33-ounce piece of lumber was swung by Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott.
Perhaps the shot was payback for Alvarez' first pitch, which had forced Alstott to hop out of the box, to the delight of a packed crowd around the batting cage. In reality, the brush-back had no criminal intent, coming in soft, low and just a bit inside, a set-up for Phillies Manager Larry Bowa to loudly declare: "That one's for Andy Reid!"
Bowa and several other Philadelphia coaches and players looked on Thursday as Alstott, an invited guest of Burrell and infielder Dave Hollins, took his first swings off live pitching since his days as a high-school catcher in Joliet, Illinois. Alvarez, a bullpen catcher, was the hurler, working from behind a screen about 50 feet in front of the plate.
Alstott's 25th-pitch tater was the highlight of an impressive performance in the cage. The 250-pound NFL star took 45 swings over the course of four trips to the plate, hitting an assortment of liners and hard grounders mixed with a few fouls and just one swing-and-miss. Though he went deep just once, several of Alstott's flies made the warning track and at least two liners hit the gaps for what would likely have been doubles.
Bowa, who provided running commentary throughout several of Alstott's sessions, was suitably impressed.
"He's alright," said the long-time MLB star. "Usually those big football players can't get (the bat) through there. He's got a nice little stroke."
Burrell and the other Philadelphia hitters waiting for their turns didn't bother to offer Alstott any pointers at the plate. "After I saw him hit the home run, I figure he might be able to help me a little," joked the Phillie slugger.
Alstott, attired in a full Phillies uniform complete with his name and number on the back of his jersey, watched several rounds of batting practice against live pitching (Kevin Millwood, Vincent Padilla and Randy Wolf) before joining Burrell's group on a separate field for Alvarez' pitching. After the first intentional ball and another one that was outside, Alstott got into the swing of things quickly, sending the next two pitches straight back up the middle on a line. His fifth swing was a hard single to left field. By the end of his first, 18-pitch session (much longer than a usual batting practice turn), Alstott was pleased but a bit winded.
"I've got sweat pouring down my head right now," he said, after it was suggested that spring training isn't nearly as strenuous as an NFL training camp. "These guys work hard. It's two different sports. These guys are out here working hard to win a championship, just like we did all year. I wish them luck."
Thanks to the additions of Thome, third baseman David Bell and Millwood, the former Braves ace, the Phillies begin the 2003 season with the same sort of buzz that surrounded the eventual champion Bucs after the arrival of Head Coach Jon Gruden last February. Thursday was just their second day of full-team workouts in Clearwater, Florida, but bashers like Burrell and Thome already appeared to be in a groove. Alstott, a six-time Pro Bowler on the gridiron, was just happy to be back on the diamond, if only for one afternoon.
"It's great to be out here hanging out with the guys a little bit," he said. "I know what they're trying to get done as a team, so I appreciate them letting me do this."
Burrell, one of the game's rising stars, and long-time MLB vet Hollins came into Alstott's Clearwater Beach restaurant, the Island Way Grill, on Tuesday and the three struck up a fast friendship. Alstott mentioned an interest in trying out his swing, and by the next morning Burrell had lined up an invitation. The fullback's visit on Thursday further enlivened what was already an energetic and well-attended Phillies camp. Alstott even signed a round of autographs for a mix of Tampa and Philly fans, the latter of which seemed to forgive him for his part in sending Reid's Eagles packing in January's NFC Championship Game.
The Phillies didn't hold that game against Alstott either, though Burrell admitted to some surprise at the result.
"As cold as it was, I thought Philadelphia had the advantage there, just being the home team," said Burrell, who attended the Bucs' 27-10 thrashing of the Eagles on January 19. That was the last football game to be played in Veterans Stadium, though the Phillies will call it home for one more season.
"But these guys came up there and played a pretty good game. If you're going to lose to somebody, it might as well be the team that goes on to win the Super Bowl."
Before his time in the cage, Alstott took time to chat with Bowa, who questioned the Buc about the difference between the two sports and the impact of Gruden's arrival in Tampa. Alstott also visited briefly with Thome, pitcher Brandon Duckworth, infielder Tyler Houston, General Manager Ed Wade and several others. Impressed with the early-camp offerings of Millwood and Wolf, Alstott asked Wade if the pitchers were using all of their pitches for practice. Wade estimated that his hurlers were working at about 70% of game effort.
Alstott even joined Burrell in the outfield after their turn at the plate, running down a few grounders when the Phillie outfielder had gone in the other direction to chase a fly ball in the gap. Finally, after a brief running session for the baseball players (Alstott, with stitches in his knee, declined), the group returned to the clubhouse to exchange Buc and Phillie gear.
T-shirts and memorabilia, that is. Don't expect Burrell and Alstott to be switching uniforms anytime soon. Alstott clearly got a kick out of indulging in his old high school sport, but football is still unquestionably his first love. When local media pointed out that baseball players tend to have higher salaries and a lower risk of injury, Alstott pointed to his soon-to-be-adorned ring finger.
"I've got a big, fat ring, though," said the leading scorer in this year's NFL playoffs. "I love football, there's no question about it. That's my sport and we're World Champs. Football's my game."
That didn't stop Burrell from imagining a possible role for Alstott in the Phillies' dugout. According to the fourth-year outfielder, who stands 6-4, 222 pounds himself, the Buc fullback would make a nice enforcer when beanballs started flying.
"If he could charge the mound for us, that would be nice," said Burrell. "An ace up our sleeves…all of a sudden he'd come out in his pads. I don't think we'd be getting hit, ever."
Alstott almost gave them a preview of that role after he was buzzed by Alvarez' first pitch.
"They're lucky I didn't charge the mound."