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Cole Hamels trade conversation continues

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Thursday, it was Cliff Lee and his magic 8-ball on the Phillies' hot seat. Friday, it was Jonathan Papelbon’s turn. Then on Saturday, up to the podium stepped the ultimate Human Trade Rumor himself, Cole Hamels.

The faces change. The questions are beginning to sound vaguely familiar. They go kind of (but not quite exactly) like this:

“What the heck are YOU still doing here?” … “Have you told the front office you’d like to get traded?” … “Were you misquoted when you said you’d like to get traded, or did you just think you were talking off the record?” … “Would you rather be a Dodger, a Giant, a Cardinal, an Angel, a Yankee, a Tiger or possibly a Yomiuri Giant?”

Yikes. Is this a spring training camp or a grand jury hearing?

But this is life in the camp of a team that once won five NL East titles in a row. That was then. This is, well, awkward.

So how’d you like to be the general manager of a team like this? Trying to get a baseball season under way while your star players get pelted with questions about where they’d like to finish their careers -- because it can’t possibly be here.

“No, it’s not awkward,” said Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. on Saturday. “It’s the nature of the beast. … It’ll go away, just like every other piece of news.”

Oh, it’ll go away, all right -- just as soon as the GM figures out a way to trade all these guys. But apparently, that’s going to take awhile.

So on Saturday afternoon, poor Cole Hamels had to sit behind a folding table and attempt to explain away a bunch of comments he made to USA Today. You’ve probably heard them by now. But if not, this would be what we know in the media biz as the money quote:

“I just want to win. … That's all any competitor wants. And I know it's not going to happen here.”

Those words, wrote USA Today’s Bob Nightengale the other day, were spoken “without hesitation, equivocation, or the slightest tinge of remorse.” But by the time Hamels showed up in front of a much larger audience in Clearwater on Saturday, he was pretty much a giant ball of hesitation, equivocation and remorse.

He didn’t quite careen away from those words like a runaway tractor-trailer. He never did deny them. That was clear. But he certainly never mouthed them again. And he seemed at least slightly perturbed that they have become a viral topic of national conversation.

He initially described the interaction with Nightengale that led to the publication of those quotes as “a continuation of a conversation from January and before spring training.”

When he was pressed to explain exactly what that meant, to detail when the original “conversation” took place and when it “continued,” the best he could muster was: “I was on vacation. So it was a continuation of a conversation we were having at the moment.”

Oh. In other words, when he and Nightengale first spoke -- on a beach in Maui, according to Nightengale -- Hamels clearly said all that stuff. Then, a few days ago, he reiterated the same sentiments, or at least gave Nightengale the go-ahead to write them.

Friends and teammates are well aware it’s how the 31-year-old left-hander honestly feels. So in and of themselves, the quotes were only shocking because they were so, well, honest.

But by the time Hamels settled in front of the cameras and microphones in Clearwater, he couldn’t have been real delighted to find a contingent from the Phillies front office sitting at the back of the room, including chairman David Montgomery, special advisor Dallas Green and assistant GM Scott Proefrock. So the next thing we know, he was saying stuff like, “You can’t count us out,” and “anything is possible.”

Hamels slalomed his way in and out of remarks like that. So after awhile, he was asked if those USA Today quotes no longer conveyed what he’s feeling now, 48 hours after they surfaced. He could only bring himself to say: “At this given moment, I’m a Phillie.”

And there you go. No more accurate words were spoken in his 25 minutes on the podium. But to estimate how many more given moments he’ll spend as a Phillie would be tougher than projecting how many three-ball counts he’ll run this season.

Teams that have spoken with the Phillies say Amaro’s asking price for Hamels has never gone down, at any point, since November. It might shift from one name to another at times. But the gist is, to trade for Cole Hamels, a team isn’t merely going to have to pay retail. It’s going to have to overpay. Now. Next month. And deep into the summer.

Amaro defended that steep price tag again Saturday, with a rationale he no doubt has dropped on every team that has called:

“What people don’t understand about Cole Hamels,” the GM told ESPN.com, “is that Cole Hamels is a known entity. A known winner. A known World Series MVP. A known top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.”

And Amaro said he has no hesitation about holding on to his ace until he gets what he wants because “we don’t have risk with him.” To those who say Hamels’ value holds the potential to decline with every day he remains a Phillie, Amaro says, “If Cole Hamels continues to be Cole Hamels, which we fully expect him to be, why would it decline? It doesn’t decline for us, internally. I can tell you that.”

It could certainly decline in the eyes of the teams that might want to trade for him, though -- especially if the Phillies hang on to him through the trade deadline and try to market him again next winter in a market packed with free-agent aces. But Amaro said he isn’t worried about that, either.

“There’s a lot of talk,” he said, “about well, there are going to be all these guys out there on the market. There’s going to be this guy on the market. There’s going to be that guy on the market. Well, here’s the reality: All the same risks that we have with Cole Hamels, they have with those [other] guys, too. Injury. Performance. All those things. I’ll take my chances with Cole Hamels as being one of the best guys who may or may not be available.”

OK, so is that clear? He’ll take his chances. And Hamels will take the baseball. But in the meantime, the questions are going to keep coming. And if some of the answers don’t come out the way the script writers would prefer them to come out, hey, that’s showbiz.

“This is who I am,” Hamels said Saturday, in his most candid moments in front of the microphones. “For what it’s worth, I’ve always tried to be very honest with people in general. I don’t cue-card it. I don’t have my cue cards up here giving you the straight-laced answers that I know a lot of people have been able to get away with.

“I think a lot of the people who have been around me enough, especially a lot of the media members, I think they can take it for what it’s worth. And I think they understand it.”

And you know what? He’s exactly right. We totally understand it. The guy wants to pitch for a contender. Why wouldn’t he? So all Saturday told us was that the answers to the questions might change, depending on who’s sitting in the audience. But a World Series MVP’s passion to win again? That hasn’t changed. And it won’t ever change.

Just like Ruben Amaro’s asking price.