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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Ownership Can Only Fool Phillies' Fans So Many Times

The Philadelphia Phillies yesterday announced the firing of Larry Bowa, their one-time star SS and now former manager after a four-year run as manager of the ball club. Bowa had a managerial record that was about 15 games over .500 during his tenure. Reaction in the Phillies' clubhouse fell into two categories -- those players who were disappointed by the firing, and those who were demure. Click here to get a sense of the feelings of those whom Bowa managed. For the entire gestalt of the situation, including speculation as to who may be on the Philies' short list to man the conn, click here. And for even more on the situation, check this article out as well.

My own take on it is that someone had to go, and I harkened back to the title of one of Jim Bouton's books, "I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad." That's not quite on point, because Bowa's point was that while this year's team was favored, it did suffer from a significant amount of injuries. What he didn't say, however, was that the construction of the team going into the season, and the construction of Citizens Bank Park, left it vulnerable.

I won't go through an analysis of what went wrong, because in the upcoming days you can log into and other websites for that assessment. The bottom line is that a panoply of reasons contribured to the Phillies' failure to make the playoffs, as follows:

1. Major injuries to the pitching staff (Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood and Randy Wolf missed significant time);
2. The failure of any Phillies' starter to turn into a #1 starter;
3. The narrow dimensions of the new ballpark (which somewhat nullified the pitching advantage the Phillies' thought they'd have going into the season);
4. The significant amount of time closer Billy Wagner missed because of injury;
5. The sometimes combustibility of the Phillies' bullpen and the inexplicable signing of gas can Roberto Hernandez in the off-season (which Baseball Prospectus questioned but which GM Ed Wade thought was a real bargain);
6. The inability of key Philies' players to hit with men on base (notably, Jim Thome and Mike Lieberthal);
7. The early-season refusal of leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins to become a more selective hitter (Rollins has since seen the light and has had an excellent season);
8. The Phillies' lineup's inability to take pitches, get walks, and strike out less;
9. The continued mystery of Pat Burrell;
10. The deteriorating relationship of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan with the pitching staff (Kerrigan will jump or get pushed from his job after the season);
11. The failure of GM Ed Wade to make a significant trade at mid-season to help the club before the trading deadline (especially if you don't think the acquisitions of Felix Rodriguez and Todd Jones to be significant); and
12. Bowa himself, who had a frosty relationship with some players and whose relationship with the local media was rocky. It doesn't appear that Bowa added a ton of calm to the clubhouse.

Those reasons, and others, will be vetted through the media in a long off-season for the Phillies. And that's fine, because that's what hometown fans do. The relish the accomplishments, fume over the disappointments, and wait until next year with the hope that the front office will make the right moves and re-construct the team so that it can compete more effectively next year.

Except apparently that may not be the case in Philadelphia, where the Brahmin ownership is at it again. I read a blurb somewhere (in one of the Phila. area papers) that the Phillies will look to reduce their payroll by $10 million (from $93 million to $83 million) for next year (this story line came out in a discussion about whether the Phillies would seek to sign up starter Eric Milton to a long-term contract). It's a disturbing story line for Phillies fans, and, to some, will be seen as the ultimate sign of betrayal. No, not Eric Milton, the payroll!

The one issue that burned the Phillies' fans' collective tails over the years was the public whining by then President Bill Giles, starting in the mid-1980's, that the Phillies were not a big market team, were a small-market team, and therefore couldn't compete on salaries with the teams that were making the playoffs. It was the biggest piece of misinformation that was put over on the Phillies' fans in quite a while. Why? Because the last time that anyone with half a brain checked, the Philadelphia-area media market is most certainly within the top 10 in the majors, perhaps even in the top 5. And that's a small market?

So the Phillies' fans had to suffer with Steve Jeltz at shortstop, with too many fifth starters trying to be second starters, with too many role players trying to play every day. And the team, from say 1985-2004, has had one post-season appearance and about three times as many losing seasons as winning ones. To hear the Phillies' management tell it, the team suffered from an inferior stadium, and the Vet, which was home to so many wonderful moments under Ruly Carpenter's ownership in the late 1970's and early 1980's, was the root of all evil. Build us the new stadium, they offered, and things will be different. In contrast, the average Phillies' fan, who had stopped going to as many games as he had, say, during those golden years (as attendance had dropped off markedly), would have argued differently. He would have argued, correctly, that Phillies' fans would go to a barnyard to watch a winner, and that they won't go to a palace to watch a team with no chance of winning.

Small market, the average fan would say, you've got to be kidding me.

That said, the Phillies' fans drank the Dave Montgomery-led ownership's Kool-Aid that things would be different with a new stadium, and with good reason. Two years ago, the Phillies made then what seemed to be a great trade in dealing AAA catcher Johnny Estrada to the Braves for proven winner Millwood (a trade that now seems to be a great one -- for the Braves), and signing 3B David Bell and 1B Jim Thome as free agents. Wow, the Phillies' fans thought, now the well-to-do and seemingly uncaring ownership wants to win. Jim Thome? In Philadelphia? With the money they saved by not inking 3B Scott Rolen to a long-term deal, they were able to land Thome, Bell and Millwood! The Phillies' brass spun that one well, and low and behold, with Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and some promising starters, the Phillies' future was looking good to the win-starved fan base on the eve of launching a new stadium.

And it desperately needed to. The ownership may be as inspiring as a chamber music quintet at a high school graduation party for the stoner crowd, but they knew that the average Phils' fan felt a sense of disappointment at best and betrayal at worst over the lack of attention to the roster since at least '93 and practically speaking, since '83, left the average fan with a strange feeling. Fans love winners, and most fans would rather go to a "bad" venue to see a great team than a palace to see a loser. The Phillies' management knew that, and they acted accordingly.

So they went into this season with a $93 million payroll, high expectations, and a lot of things went wrong. The hometown 9 didn't make the playoffs, and the fans are disappointed. Okay, so a lot of things went wrong, so many that you cannot pin the bad facts on just one guy or just one group. The average fan can accept that to a degree.

But what the average fan cannot accept is being fooled twice. Especially at the hands of the same group. With another Big Lie. The average fan doesn't trust this ownership group because of the awful products that it had put on the field for most of the past two decades. And then the average fan let this group get its hopes up with the new stadium and, more importanly, a fortified roster. And now, the average fan reads that the ownership group wants to cut payroll by $10 million!

And he is downright furious. If this is true, and if this course is the one that ths ownership group elects to follow, then the Phillies fans will be livid. Yes, the new ballpark is a pleasant venue, but that begs the question of the quality of the team that plays in it. And if this ownership group cuts the payroll so quickly into the life of this new stadium, the average fan will do what he did from 1994 to 2003.

He'll go to the games less and less. Especially if what's put out on the field is a .500 ball club, a team without a stopper in the rotation, a team that strikes out too much, doesn't show a lot of fire and gets hurt too often. The Phillies' fans are disappointed that their team didn't do better this year, and they'll prove to be indifferent about the fate of Larry Bowa, but they'll be downright furious if the ownership's roster-building going into the new stadium proves to have been a facade, a Trojan Horse, a head-fake, whatever you want to call it. A Big Lie, perhaps?

You can make the manager and the pitching coach the scapegoats for your disappointing season, and then you can hire a sedated manager who slaps players on the butt and says "Aw shucks" to the MSM, which will hail the new manager's arrival with glee, and you can make a few roster moves. All of that is well and good.

But if you cut the payroll, the team probably won't fare as well, and despite whatever bows you put on the package you'll call the 2005 Philadelphia Phillies, the fans will sit there wondering why they drank your Kool-Aid. And the relatively new stadium will no longer be a palliative for what really ails them and their team.

The ownership.

Which, regrettably, can fire anyone they want but themselves.

Signing Jim Thome? Great.

Trading for Billy Wagner? Super.

Opening a new stadium? Terrific.

A decision by the ownership to sell the team?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong whipping boy(s) this time. Ownership finally made the commitment, and the players and the hopelessly overmatched manager didn't produce. Let's not worry about rumors regarding next season's payroll -- let's see what the management actually puts on the field.

Replacing Millstone (I mean Millwood) with anyone reduces the payroll substantially and improves the rotation. That trade reminds me of the Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz trade in 1987, but at least Detroit got its division title that year.

Granted, injuries probably were worth the 7 or 8 games needed to propel the team to a wild card spot.

Getting rid of Bowa, a fiery competitor with a hopelessly low EQ and a strategic sense from the dead ball era is the right move.


10:30 AM  

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