Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Phillies Fire Ruben Amaro -- and That is Not the Real Story

Good columns abound in the Philadelphia papers on this topic, including one in today's Philadelphia Inquirer  (Bob Ford might have been the author) that suggested (rightly) that Ruben Amaro was a product of the Phillies' culture.  Bingo!

Amaro grew up in an ownership that for the most part was one of benign neglect.  Sure, the Giles-era ownership will argue that they made some big signings, going all the way back to Gregg Jeffries (remember that future Hall of Famer?) and built the city a new stadium, but they seemingly only did so because they had to and, unlike the Yankee regime in New York, didn't have the burning compulsion to win.

Vilified were the now disgraced Curt Schilling and, before him, stellar third baseman, Scott Rolen, who called ownership to account publicly and somehow managed not only to infuriate the Giles group, but also the fans.  Why?  Because the team spun the story in a way that both players had insulted the good, hard working people of the city.  Nonsense.

The reason why what Schilling and Rolen said hurt so much because it was true and pointed out inconvenient facts that other franchises were more committed to winning, not only by upgrading stadiums but also farm systems and rosters.  At one point it seemed that you got a front office job if you new the Carpenters or the Giles' family and perhaps went to certain Philadelphia area private schools.  It also seemed like you got jobs in the organization if you once played for it, and, given the Phillies' rather tepid history, seemed to help perpetuate a team that resembled a geyser -- every now and then by happenstance it would erupt into something fantastic, but otherwise it would sit there sleepily from season to season, unexciting and unproductive.

That's, of course, not to knock the Whiz Kids, the Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt era, even the oddball '93 team and most certainly not the Charlie Manuel/Rollins/Utley/Howard/Hamels Phillies' teams of recent years.  But those were the eruptions.  In between were some of the worst eras known to baseball.  It isn't by accident, after all, the the franchise was the first to lose 10,000 games.  That takes some doing -- benign neglect and worse.

The columnist was accurate because it struck me years ago that the team didn't need a managerial change (sure, perhaps it was time for Manuel to retire, but he was great when it counted) or a GM change (even though it was baffling that while the awful Astros were improving markedly through analytics the envied Phillies would have taken a leap forward had they at least hired a few nerds from Drexel with slide rules).  They needed an ownership change.  Forget the wealthy Main Liners who enjoying owning a baseball team.  We needed someone like Josh Harris of the 76ers, someone who just wants to win (even though his patience at this point is somewhat perplexing), the Cardinals' history of excellence, the Steinbrenner family's passion, something, somewhere, to shake this ownership group out of its malaise.  No analytics today yields no talent yields huge drop-offs at the box office.  What a difference seven years makes!

So fast forward to 2015.  Well-liked president David Montgomery is a few years gone, and the guy who gets credit for rebuilding the Orioles, Lee MacPhail, has replaced both him and ostensibly his interim sub, the Hall of Famer Pat Gillick (Gillick gets too much credit for the success of the 2008 team; former GM Ed Wade gets way too little, perhaps because he was so bland and humorless in dealing with the media).  But even that advent of MacPhail is not the big story.  More than that, I'd submit that the firing of Ruben Amaro isn't the biggest news.

Yes, Amaro did some good and bad things.  He gets credited for signing Raul Ibanez, which I believe is one of his worst moves as GM, followed by his inking the following season of Placido Polanco.  My reasoning is simple -- demographics.  The Phillies' core in 2008 was about the same age -- 29 to 31.  So, at a time when they needed to reload by getting younger, the Phillies got older.  Ibanez had one good half season and two and a half bad ones, and Polanco was often hurt.  The team signed him when he was 34.  Getting Cliff Lee was great; trading him was awful, and signing him as a free agent again was brilliant.  Sadly, concurrently, the farm system was a very dry well.  Peddling Hunter Pence to the Giants was a big mistake, and while Amaro gets credit for trading for Roy Oswalt, Oswalt pretty much was a disappointment and the front office goofed by somehow letting promising outfielder Domingo Santana be on the player-to-be-named list, and the Astros snapped him up.

To examine the stats, the team won the World Series in 2008 and by 2011 lost in the first round of the NLDS.  Cliff Lee, paid to do exactly this, failed to hold a four-run lead after one inning in the second game of the series with the Phillies up 1-0.  If Lee were to hold that lead, the Phillies, who had a great regular-season record, would have been on their way.  Instead, the Phillies couldn't hit Cris Carpenter, who outdueled Roy Halladay in a gem in Game 5, and saw Howard rupture his Achilles in the game's last at-bat.  By 2015, they have had consistently worse records and attendance.  To quote Bill Parsells, "you are what your record says you are."

But even with all that -- and Amaro was held accountable -- there was something more vexing about the team -- ownership.  It made poor decisions and it made late decisions, after the damage was done.  It seemed like whoever controlled the group only made decisions after bad facts popped up and had festered into an antiobiotic-resistant infection.

Until, perhaps, now.

Enter John Middleton.

He is vocal, and he seems decisive. and he seems to want to break the back of the "noblesse oblige" type of ownership that has plagued the team for decades.

The man wants to win.

The man does not want to be part of a group that presides over a pastime and is content to sit back and not be involved.  It was Middleton who took over the ownership group, it was Middleton who got MacPhail hired and it was Middleton who helped terminate Amaro.  It will be Middleton who helps revamp the farm system, it will be Middleton who will be instrumental in hiring the new general manager and it will be Middleton who helps the new GM effect change and get him the resources he needs to succeed.

And all of that is more important right now than who sits in the dugout writing out the lineup card (Pete Mackanin is doing a good job) and who the general manager will be.  Because without a strong, vibrant owner who is committed to winning, the team doesn't have a chance against every other organization in the majors, all of whom who have evolved and adapted analytics long before the Phillies did.

The firing of Amaro might draw the headlines, but it is the emergence of Middleton that should get the fans very excited and has the potential to bring them back into Citizens Bank Park.

This is long overdue.  This is something for the Phillies to get excited about.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Patriots' Games

We all liked the hippie chick teacher in high school.  She was cool, she was cute, she drove a VW bus.  One day in tenth grade she walked in with her arm in a sling, had a shiner in one eye and looked pretty banged up.  She offered up a car accident the reason.  Fast forward to the middle of twelfth grade, and she had told us that she had been in three more car accidents.  Each time, she looked pretty banged up. 

My father offered the following advice.  "Son, if you have one car accident, chances are you had an accident.  But if you have four in two years, you have a driving problem." 

If the New England Patriots hadn't had all the noise surrounding them -- Spygate (which just got uglier thanks to reports in both SI and ESPN the Magazine), Deflategate (prediction is that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the District Court's ruling) and now the headphones in the game versus the Steelers' last night -- we could chalk up what happened to last night to a combination of bad systems and bad weather.  But, because of all the other incidents, it looks very suspicious. 

Right now, the New England Patriots do not deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to character matters.  Right now, everything funny that happens in that stadium or with that team must be fully scrutinized.  As Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin said in last night's post-game news conference, something always happens when they play New England. 

And you don't hear that about every other team.  You hear it about New England.

Many refuse to believe it, of course.  The Patriots are the gold standard, they're too good to have cheated, they're too well-run and well-coached.  (These fans also thought that Lance Armstrong was winning all of those Tour de France races without using performance enhancing drugs).  Patriots' supports adopt classic bullying tactics -- their owner fires before aiming at Commissioner Goodell and the Wells Report, and their star -- their version of Lance Armstrong before the fall -- goes on the attack (and, look, I will be the first one to say that the team and the player are entitled to a defense).  Then their fans mock the commissioner.  Some might call it rightful, others aggressive, others bullying.  But at the end of the day, it's hard to convince anyone that the Colts and the Steelers are joining forces to bring down the Patriots.  It seems like the Patriots are doing that to the Patriots.

The Patriots have a culture problem and a credibility problem.  It will get worse if those recent magazine reports get legs, too.  I hope for the NFL's sake that Spygate does not descend into a hellish Armstrong-like story.  But with the Patriots, it seems like we never know just what to believe.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Hallelujah -- Temple Beats Penn State!

I waited my entire life for this. 

Like Coach Matt Rhule, I felt a sense of gratification that the team and fans did not "over-celebrate" because they flat out knew that they could win the game.  And win the Temple Owls did, because they simply out-hit Penn State on both sides of the ball, sacking the Nittany Lions' quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, ten times.  As the game moved further and further toward its end, a groundswell of emotions picked up in me.  Part of me had to convince myself that this was happening; the other part convinced myself that this really shouldn't have come as a surprise.  Yet, this was the biggest win in Temple's football history (or at least since 1941, the year the Owls last beat Penn State), even though these aren't your father's Penn State teams and, upon consideration, for symbolic reasons too.  The gritty urban underdog beat the pampered scenic wealthier cousin.  That doesn't happen that often.

The reason I waited my entire life for this is because my father went to Temple and had at least a cup of coffee or a thermos with the football team, playing in the late 40's with, among others, many WWII vets who were a lot older and hardened by the war.  From the time I was a little kid, we trekked first to Temple Stadium, then to Franklin Field and then to Vet Stadium to watch the Owls.  Temple Stadium was intimate; Franklin Field a great venue but far from packed, and the multi-purpose Vet soulless as it played to mostly empty crowds. 

We saw some good players under George Makris, among them quarterbacks Tommy DiFelice and John Waller and wide receiver Jim Callahan.  And then entered Wayne Hardin, the coaching brainiac who had coached both Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino at Navy.  Hardin could innovate, motivate and recruit -- especially if you were a favorite, and we saw Maxwell Award winner Steve Joachim, future Steelers' tight end Randy Grossman, linemen such as Bill "Skip" Singletary (now a HS coach in Philadelphia) and Jim Cooper, who would go on to play for the Cowboys.  We saw what we thought was the best nose tackle known to man, a barroom brawler named Joe Klecko, and we saw a graceful receiver in Steve Watson. The former would go on to star for the Jets, the latter for the Broncos.  We also saw the great kicker, Nick Mike-Mayer.  Of course, there were many others, and I've probably forgotten a few whom I should not have who excelled and brought many fond memories.

We saw the Owls upset West Virginia in the early 1970's at Temple Stadium, with the team carrying Hardin off the field.  We saw Penn State nick them at Franklin Field by a point, even after on one of the first plays from scrimmage Cooper bowled offer Penn State's all-American linebacker Greg Buttle to spring Bobby Harris for a 75-or-so-yard touchdown run.  We also saw the Owls lose 10-7 at the Vet late in the game on a field goal by one of the Bahr brothers, this after the game was tied late in the fourth, the Owls were driving and the Owls coughed the ball up.  It was in that game that Hardin punted consistently on third down to pin Penn State deep in their own territory, deploying the nation's leading punter, Casey Murphy, deftly. 

There were so many memories because this was the father-and-son thing that we did.  We went to Temple football games, and, of course, heard many disrespectful comments in the process.  We were surrounded by Penn State fans, who view their school and team as superior.  As to the latter, well, way back when, in the 1960's and 1970's, it wasn't necessarily bragging if you could back it up.  And Joe Paterno's Lions could.

But I didn't care.  This is what I did with my dad, and this was our team.  We loved the Owls, Hardin's innovative style, the way they played hard and won many more than they lost.  Temple Stadium was tiny but intimate, and we trekked their many Saturdays and watched with great interest.  I still cherish those days.  It was special time that we had together, uninterrupted, eating hot dogs, drinking soda, eating peanuts, talking football. 

It wasn't quite the same at Franklin Field or the Vet, and I'm happy to see bigger crowds at the Linc.  Dad died in the mid-1980's, and my interested waned.  Put differently, I lost my football-watching buddy, and to be honest there aren't many around who, with an increasing number of choices, would select going to Temple football games above them.  I kept up my interest, occasionally watching them on television or listening on the radio, and most usually I read the newspaper accounts.  I liked Bruce Arians' promise and then was sad as a succession of coaches couldn't bring success to North Broad Street.  It was an empty feeling -- not only was my father gone, but the current version of what had created fond memories had cratered.

Then came Al Golden, who resurrected the program, and then Steve Addazio, and now Matt Rhule.  My guess is that better facilities and the fact that schools can no longer hoard players has helped the Owls get better ones, as has the current crop of coaches.  The buzz got louder, the players and team got better, and that led up to Saturday's game. 

I saw the point spread and hoped for the best, liked what I had heard on ESPN that morning and read enough to know that the Owls had a very good defense.  As the game played out, my mind raced from here to there, from the time I went to games when I was a young kid (I think I went as far back as 1965) to the mid-1980's, before Dad died.  And oh did he love his Owls and going to games.  I felt his spirit, as though he were pointing out the gaps in the Penn State line for Temple's pass rushers to exploit.  When it came to Temple football, I was a dormant volcano's worth full of emotions.  I always had hoped to be able to open that vault and express them, but feared that I never would in my life time. 

But then the game happened and ended, and the Owls won.  I smiled a very big smile, and had a trace of tears in my eyes.  Okay, so the Lions weren't nationally ranked, big deal.  To see so many Temple fans at the Linc wearing the cherry and white there to enjoy to watershed moment was something to see.  We saw some close calls, but felt like Sisyphus -- our team had pushed its proverbial rock up the hill only never to get there.  But on Saturday they did.  And it felt good.

I told my son that for my sports-watching and rooting experience, this was like a major shift of tectonic plates, a fault line, a discovery that there is life on Mars, that chocolate can cure cancer or something else that hard to fathom.  It was a great thing to see, it really was.

I just wish my father were there to watch it with me. 

And perhaps sitting with me on the porch all night, sampling sipping whiskey, talking about all the games we went to until the sun rose. 

Temple beat Penn State.


Friday, September 04, 2015

Reflections on Transfer Deadline Day

In no particular order:

1.  I wonder what the analytics guys say.  There is all sorts of game theory that can go on here, such as it's probably a better idea to negotiate and buy early when no one focuses on whether you have a pronounced need than late, where people will try to gouge you if a) you have a pronounced need and b) what they have is in short supply.  Take the case of strikers.  Arsenal and United both were looking, the former because Olivier Giroud cannot handle the load alone and is not viewed as elite and Theo Walcott looked exposed in the Gunners' last game and the latter because Memphis is not an elite player and Wayne Rooney hasn't played the position in a few years.  So, Arsenal knocked on many doors and came up empty, if only because they found PSG's not-so-very-clutch Edson Cavani to be over-priced and somehow they couldn't get it done for, among others, Icardi or Zaza or Pato and whomever else they discussed.  On the other hand, United overpaid and paid for a future dividend in breaking the bank for 19 year-old Anthony Martial, in whom Gunner great Thierry Henry sees a lot of himself.  But the question is whether Martial can contribute mightily this year.  And the answer here is no.  The broader question is whether he projects to be another Henry, and the odds are against that.  Henrys don't come around all that often.

2.  Why didn't Arsenal do anything more than sign Petr Cech?  Perhaps they think they can win with who they have (unlikely that they will win the Premiership without more oomph).  Perhaps they kept on getting outbid by teams that are more desperate.  Or perhaps they were just too slow on the trigger.  Two years ago they landed Mesuz Ozil on deadline day; last year they landed Alexis Sanchez rather early.  This year, they landed Petr Cech very early.  Fans in North London expected more than a very good thirty-three year-old keeper.

3.  What the -- DeGea didn't go to Real Madrid after all?  What a strange set of circumstances.  Will van Gaal now play him more at Old Trafford?  And will Sergio Romero be content if that happens?  And what does that say to the keepers in Madrid?  That their manager continuously will be looking for someone better?

4.  Teams that make too many changes don't gel all that quickly.  A few years ago it was Spurs when they signed five players after selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.  They had trouble finding good chemistry.  Could that be a) Liverpool or b) United this year?  Lots of new faces in new positions, and if a bad early game is any indication, Liverpool looked lost after a 3-0 defeat at Anfield to West Ham.  This is not your father's West Ham.  These Hammers are on the rise and perhaps could draw a new buyer when they move into the Olympic Stadium.  More oil or oligarch money could pour into London, and then the Hammers too could become a super team.  Stranger things could happen.

5.  Does Kevin DeBruyne's arrival at City make them the favorites to win the Premier League?  Yes.  They're miffed that they regressed last year, and they look much sharper getting out of the starting gate.  Wins in September count as much as wins in April, and City looks to continue its great start and put pressure on the others to keep up.  Sergio Aguero might be the best player in the Premiership.

6.  Whither Chelsea?  Their defense is a year older, and it is not deep.  Their midfield play will crisp up, as will their play at striker, but they are a older.  They suffer a bit from too much of a good thing -- they loan more players than the next two or three teams in the Premier League combined.  It's hard to figure how they determine whom to play and whom to loan, and they have an embarrassment of riches.  Still, it's hard to count them out, although Jose Mourinho usually doesn't stay in one place for more than three years, which means he could be on the move after this season.  Love the rivalry between him and Arsene Wenger, too.