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Friday, April 10, 2015

Jonathan Papelbon Could Be Onto Something. . . and the Owners Should Sell the Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon is good copy.  In an era where many try to avoid controversy, conflict or creating bulletin-board material, he is interesting.  He doesn't have a filter, or, if he has one, he elects not to use it.  The unforgiving think it's the former; the more charitable think it's the latter.  It really doesn't matter whether he has a filter or not; Papelbon says what's on his mind, which makes him infinitely more interesting than the beloved Phillie, Chase Utley, for whom opening up to the media is less preferred than undergoing a root canal (and without novocaine at that).

I recall years ago when Scott Rolen turned down a long-term deal and was vilified, and when Curt Schilling questioned the franchise's willingness to spend to win -- and was vilified.  Both, though, were speaking the truth about ownership's commitment and did the fans a favor, because before the team opened up the Bank, it needed to make a commitment to getting good players.  The reason is as old as professional sports -- fans will go to a cow pasture to see a winner, but they will persist in going to a palace to watch a loser.  Enter Jim Thome, some good draft picks, and, voila, you had the 2007-2011 Phillies.  Ownership knew it needed to do something, and, to its credit (and with a little luck, because historically its ability to build a farm system and find prospects was legendarily bad).  So while Rolen was sometimes sullen and Schilling too garrulous to be adored in Philadelphia, both did us a favor.

And now there is Papelbon.  Perhaps he's not the brightest bulb in the box.  But he is who he is and doesn't speak in cliches or bromides.  You could see his competitive juices flowing in Boston, and you can sense his frustration here.  Ownership messed it up in so many ways -- by getting older in 2009 when it needed to get younger, by not developing good prospects to replace aging veterans, by not getting good enough value for Cliff Lee the first time and then Hunter Pence, and by selecting Ruben Amaro, Jr., who has presided over the decline, over Mike Arbuckle, who has helped Kansas City turn into a good team.  When you win a World Series, a lot has to go right.  When you go from World Champion to the worst team in baseball, a lot has to go wrong.

I think it starts with the Phillies' culture, led by a bunch of seemingly well-intentioned monied elites and an all-around good guy in David Montgomery.  They want to win, but they also like the concept of owning a ball club, of having the good seats.  They don't seemed wired enough to want to win -- every day in every way.  They were the last team to adopt analytics, they have had a questionable farm system for, well, ever (with certain mother lodes found at certain times being the exception), they have struggled mightily to develop pitchers (who did they develop between, say Robin Roberts and Cole Hamels?), and, well, they have lost more games than any other franchise -- on merit.  The Steinbrenners want to win; John Henry wants to win; Magic Johnson's group in LA wants to win, and, Lord knows, the guys who own the Giants want to win badly, as does the group in St. Louis.  But the group in Philadelphia -- I don't know them personally, but they are what their record says they are.

Ruly Carpenter got it when he took over the Phillies from his father over thirty years ago, only to sell the team to the current group because the strike of 1981 wounded him deeply and he just grew tired of the labor unrest.  The group that followed has struggled, sinking so low at one point that then-president Bill Giles referred to the club as a "small market" team.  Philadelphia, a small market, you say?  Perhaps it was that he and his leadership of the ownership group was small-minded.  And the record reflected that.

I am not sure that the current ownership group "gets it," and, if they do, they have a funny way of showing it.  The club's two best position players are 36 year-old veterans (increasingly) of the disabled list, the outfield a disaster, the starting pitching roster mostly a last-chance hotel for other teams' castoffs (save Hamels and, when healthy, Cliff Lee), with the bullpen being an asset if healthy.  That does not make for a good Major League baseball club; we're back to the "Steve Jeltz Phillies" all over again.

Yes, they built a stadium, and yes, this group gave us some excitement, but it's been too little and too far between for Phillies' fans.  This group has owned the club for about 35 years, and it's time to sell it to someone else -- someone who has a vision, who is competitive, and who will not take a victory lap over building the new stadium and winning a World Series in 2008 and try to ride that wave for another couple of decades.  New ownership will evolve the team and take it well into the 21st century -- and inject a day-to-day commitment to winning.

And if you don't agree, look at the 76ers, whom Comcast mismanaged for years because they let a faded hockey guy, someone totally out of touch with current methods, run the club for at least a decade if not more.  Under Josh Harris, the team has generated a buzz -- and the team is one of the worst in the NBA.  Yet, if you go to a game, the fans are into it, and the coach has the team playing hard.  They are a few drafts away from being a real force in the league.  The fans are bought in and hopeful, and they call into sports radio to talk about the team.  Sadly, on Opening Day, the lunch-hour talk was about Chip Kelly and the Eagles and the possible draft picks for the 76ers.  No one called in about the Phillies.

They are old, they are bad, and they are not evolving.  They need a new, well, everything, and that starts at the top.

To the ownership group -- the best thing you can do for us is to sell the team.

Let's not make Jonathan Papelbon the issue.  Deep down, I think we all know what he is thinking -- that this is a losing ball club with a defeatist culture.  Who wants to be a part of that?  And who wants to pay big dollars to watch it?

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