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Thursday, November 04, 2004

They Blew It Again

Sometimes you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sometimes something falls into your lap, you find the $20 bill on a sidewalk when nobody else is nearby, you play a number that keeps on coming into your head and win the $500 prize, your brother's stockbroker gives him front-row seats to the deciding game of the World Series, stuff that the actuaries will tell you doesn't happen too often.

Sometimes these moments don't require you to act other than to collect your money. Sometimes, though, you see the opportunity but you have to just jump up and grab it. Even when it hits you in the head.

The Philadelphia Phillies had that opportunity last week and fanned on it. Just fanned. Picture the frat boy with a poster of Angelina Jolie on his wall, only to have the actress walk into his room wearing a bikini and asking for a back rub, but instead of obliging the frat boy begs off to drink and play darts at a campus hangout with the boys, or to study for the differential equations exam that's two weeks down the road. Because, in a sense, that's what the Phillies did.

At the end of the past baseball season, the Phillies canned their manager, Larry Bowa, because the team hadn't performed as well as the front office had hoped. The word came out that they were looking for a successor who would be an Uncle Robbie to Bowa's John McGraw, a player's manager to the core.

So they interviewed seven candidates, special assistant to the GM Ed Wade Charlie Manuel, who had managed the Indians to the playoffs and is a good friend of Phillies' 1B Jim Thome, Grady Little, the ill-fated manager of the Red Sox in 2003, Mets' hitting coach Don Baylor, Braves' hitting coach Terry Pendleton, Pirates' coach and former Phillie John Russell, former Phillies' manager Jim Fregosi and current Cards' scout and former manager Jim Leyland.

The same Jim Leyland who was a protege of Tony LaRussa, who will probably be in the Hall of Fame some day, who managed the Pirates with a young outfielder named Bonds to the playoffs in the early 1990's, who managed the Florida Marlins to a world championship in 1997 and then who managed the Colorado Rockies to the playoffs in their early years. The same Jim Leyland who turned down a bunch of entreaties to get him to manage other teams, and who came out and said that he wanted to manage the Philadelphia Phillies. Who wanted the challenge, who wanted to be the one to take this team back to the playoffs.

Now, the easy thing for the Phillies to have done was to say to Jim Leyland, "How much and for how long, who is your agent and how to we get the paper done so that we can announce you as our manager?" That's all that it would have taken. No flowers, no candy, no clever poetry, no group of electricians cheering your name (the way they did for Jim Thome when he toured the construction site for the new ballpark), nothing like that. Just asking a simple question and closing the deal.

But the Philadelphia Phillies, their CEO, Dave Montgomery, and their GM, Ed Wade, didn't do that. Instead, they hired the guy who most Phillies' fans thought was the manager in waiting when the team hired him to be an aide to Ed Wade two years ago -- Charlie Manuel. And it's not that Manuel is a terrible choice. He's a players' manager, he had success in Cleveland, and the players in the Phillies' organization like him. Fair enough. He's an acceptable choice.

But he's no Jim Leyland. He just hasn't posted the results that Leyland did, and for Phillies' fans this form of executive decisionmaking is just another sad, bad blow. The Phillies could have inked one of the best managers in modern baseball history, and they picked a member of the old boy club and the good old boy club, a buddy of Jim Thome. The guy who everyone thought they'd pick all along.

Phillies' fans everywhere have to be agape, speechless. If the equivalent of a Jim Leyland is availabe in your life, you grab him, it, her, whatever. Without much question. Especially if you believe that you're on the brink of excellence and this equivalent is the missing piece. But, instead, they picked a more generic brand that has some good features but just isn't as good as what walked in the door.

Go figure.

Except, for this Phillies administration, the decision figures. Actually, it was predictable.

You can understand when your little kids play soccer, that when they get a breakaway to the goal they'll dribble the ball and shoot an unattended goal and still miss. Why? Because they're little kids and they just don't have the skills yet. But when grown men in a very competitive environment do the same, you just have to scratch your head and wonder why.

Jim Leyland wants to manage my team?

Easy, sign him up.

Jim Leyland wants to manage the Philadelphia Phillies?

Easy, sign up someone else.

The 2005 season is a very key one for the Philadelphia Phillies. If they don't address their significant problems in the off-season (centerfield, clutch hitting, cutting down on strikeouts, strengthening the bullpen and straightening out their rotation, and if this manager can't get these players to play better, watch out.

That thundering noise will not be of the fans chanting Jim Thome's name or banging their feet to encourage their team.

It will be of the fans stampeding toward the exits.


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