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In Philly, diamonds are dull next to a soap opera's glitz


PHILADELPHIA -- The caller knew he was on an island, but he tried, anyway.

It was in between phone interviews with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Greg Lewis yesterday on WIP, the city's leading sports talk radio station.

WIP had lost contact with Lewis, who had been talking about fellow wide receiver Terrell Owens' much-publicized return to training camp. So the hosts decided to hear from the public until they could get Lewis on the phone again.

The first call came from a Phillies fan who said he felt like the only person in the city excited about the team's four-game series against the Washington Nationals.

He was optimistic about the Phillies' postseason chances, understandable since their 4-3 win over the Nationals last night put them in a first-place tie with the Houston Astros in the wild-card race -- a half-game ahead of Washington.

The caller finished what he had to say. Then the show's hosts buried him. They said the Phillies had little character. They said the Phillies had an inferior starting rotation. Then they hung up on the guy.

And they returned to obsessing about Owens, weeks before the regular-season kickoff.

Welcome to Philadelphia, where it is all T.O. all the time. And where baseball has become an annoying timeout in between Eagles seasons.

The back page of yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News was a picture of Owens with the caption "T-DAY -- Is T.O. in or is he out? Today may tell."

The Philadelphia Inquirer had two Owens stories and a picture above the fold on the sports front. The Phillies were pushed to the bottom of the page -- while legitimately in a pennant race.

"It's a football town. We hear Eagles chants when we're playing," said Phillies reserve catcher Todd Pratt. "It's a football town, which is understandable because they've won. They've been in the playoffs the past four years; we haven't since 1993."

If you think Baltimore's baseball fans have become jaded, take a drive up Interstate 95 to find a real city of baseball indifference.

"I can't see the fans really getting excited unless they knew we were in it or it's toward the end," said starting catcher Mike Lieberthal. "Because I don't feel the fans think that we're going to go, that we're going to be in the playoffs."

No active athlete in any of the four major sports has played in Philadelphia for more consecutive seasons than Lieberthal, who was promoted from the minors in 1994. He has never seen a playoff game here; the 1993 team that lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series was the last to make the postseason.

He has heard plenty of boos, though.

"They definitely show their disappointment," Lieberthal said. "And they will still show their disappointment until we're in first place or are definitely penciled in as the wild card."

OK, so there has been a 12-year playoff drought here. That's even longer than the one in Baltimore. But let's not compare scars.

The Phillies have had a winning record in three of their past four seasons. They have the fourth-highest payroll in baseball. With their win last night, they are now in second place in the National League East.

Only six weeks remain in the regular season, and the Phillies are in the middle of the hunt, so there should be some optimism here, right? "Until we actually win and go to the playoffs," Lieberthal said, "you'll just be looked down upon, like, 'Oh, you guys [stink] until you actually make' " the postseason.

Billy Wagner, the Phillies' All-Atar closer, has been here for just 1 1/2 seasons, but he already has got the fans figured out.

"They don't even know what they are booing at most of the time," he said. "They yell and boo and they don't know what they are paying attention to or yelling at. They're spelling 'Eagles' the whole game."

You get used to it, Wagner said.

It doesn't bother him that during one of the biggest series of the year, the papers, radio and television stations and many of the city's fans are focused primarily on Owens and his squabbles with Eagles management and players.

There's even some irony here.

Owens' disruptions may cost the Eagles a chance at a fifth straight NFC title game. But, Wagner said, smiling, Owens might actually help the Phillies play in October.

"We love it," Wagner said. "If T.O. wants to take all the pressure off our division race, go right ahead."

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