Blanton pleading the fifth

The Big Four is no more. Even before the first unhittable pitch is delivered at Phillies spring training this week in Clearwater, Fla., the 2011 juggernaut has already acquired a fifth wheel. His name is Joe Blanton.

At the insistence of Roy Halladay, no media requests will be granted for one of the best pitching rotations ever assembled without including the fifth starter, Joe Blanton. That’s why Blanton was perched right up there on the press-conference podium yesterday with his four more talented teammates — a living, breathing version of that old Sesame Street game, “Which One Doesn’t Belong?”

Now, there are two ways to look at this odd development in a sport that needs all of the national exposure it can get, especially in its losing battle with the NFL. One is that this just proves what a great team the Phillies have put together, one for all and all for one. The other perspective is the correct one, of course — that it’s totally ridiculous.

Lumping Blanton in with these elite pitchers isn’t just an affront to smart fans, it’s an insult to Blanton himself. Think about it. The five pitchers sit down for a Q&A session with ESPN. Halladay talks about his perfect game and no-hitter. Cliff Lee discusses how he took less money to play in Philadelphia. Roy Oswalt explains his decision to waive a no-trade clause to play with these guys. Cole Hamels reflects on his 2008 World Series MVP.

And Joe Blanton discusses his … training regimen? His career 4.30 earned run average? His trade value? The only pertinent question will be: What is it like being The Other Guy? The moment that question is posed — and rest assured, it’s coming soon — the folly of this plan will become painfully apparent.

Hey, I realize many fans see this insistence on including Blanton as a positive sign that no egos are bigger than any others on the 2011 Phillies. And yes, I know Halladay calls the shots on all major decisions because he is a powerful and unique presence in the clubhouse.

But something crazy like this is no less crazy because the team leader is insisting on it. The Big Four is something very special this year for the sport and for this city.

If Blanton plans to make it the Big Five, there is no short cut. He has to do what Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels have already done. He has to earn it.

Big Red must go

Jerry Sloan resigned in his 23rd year as coach of the Utah Jazz, ending his reign as the longest-tenured coach in American pro sports. A week earlier, coach Jeff Fisher left Tennessee after 16 years. Is Andy Reid next?

Unfortunately, not yet. But those departures moved Reid up to fourth on the list of U.S. coaches working continuously in one city. He is entering his 13th year, behind only Tony La Russa (16), Gregg Popovich (16) and Lindy Ruff (13). Please note that those other coaches either won a championship or work in a small market.

Every coach has an expiration date stamped on his era, and Reid’s seems close. His erratic behavior this offseason — Sean McDermott’s vote of confidence and firing, Juan Castillo’s promotion, the singling out of David Akers during a major medical crisis — isn’t playing well in the cheap seats.

Last week, a rumor circulated that Reid had been replaced by Jon Gruden. The false report provided the happiest few hours for fans since the comeback against the Giants. The reaction was so powerful, the Eagles did something they never do. They issued a statement refuting it.

Even though there was no truth to the rumor, the fans issued their own statement about Reid. If they have their way, Reid will be joining Sloan and Fisher ASAP.

Sideline warriors

While the focus remains on the Phillies and Eagles, something remarkable has been happening with our winter teams. Both are demonstrating the value of a good coach. Peter Laviolette and Doug Collins are excellent coaches having extraordinary seasons.

Laviolette is everything Andy Reid is not. He is thoughtful, respectful, inspirational and probably the best strategist in sports today. The Flyers coach has an uncanny knack for calling timeouts at precisely the right moment, a skill that has eluded Reid for 12 frustrating years. Is it any wonder Laviolette is also a champion, having won a Stanley Cup in 2006?

What makes Laviolette special is an intensity that brings out the best in players young and old. He is the best coach in this city.

Meanwhile, from the wasteland of another Sixers season has emerged a likable team with a driven coach. With Philly style. At the end of games, the person sweating the hardest is the guy on the sideline wearing the suit.

The next time someone argues that a coach isn’t a crucial element of a team, feel free to remind them that, just one year ago, John Stevens and Eddie Jordan were ruining the Flyers and Sixers.

–Angelo Cataldi is host of 610 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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