SportsProf

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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.

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