Sam Donnellon | Phillies' owners getting it right

Posted: October 12, 2007

OK, NAME THE local sports team that most fits this description: They did too little to improve in the offseason, won't commit the dollars needed to win, have a coach under significant personal and professional duress and a general manager who keeps drafting players who get hurt or don't pan out.

Sounds a whole lot more like the Eagles than the Phillies, doesn't it?

Which is amazing, when you think about it.

Seems like just yesterday that any rumor of an impending sale of the Phillies, bogus or not, would produce smiles, a lot of hope, maybe even a few hallelujahs.

Now I'm not so sure. The fun ballpark and its kind-hearted workers, a gritty, young and talented team that the city has put both arms around, a payroll that is reportedly $40 million more than three of the four teams still playing, a manager players begged to bring back, a general manager that, despite some missteps, made some shrewd midseason deals . . .

Well, don't those mystery men and women who own the Phillies get a little credit for all of this?

"The amazing conversation for me," Dave Montgomery was saying yesterday, "is when fans would say, 'If only you people cared as much about this team as we do.'

"I mean, are you kidding me?"

Montgomery said the other day the team's payroll hit $103 million last season, and that it can go up next season. "We got to the new ballpark, we said we would act differently," Montgomery said. "These people haven't taken a dime out of this club. They just want to win."

Hold your snickers. He's not contesting that the value of the franchise has risen. He's saying the ownership group he represents does not pocket the profits made when 3.1 million of you went through the turnstiles this season, or paid for your dogs and beer.

The Phillies have spent - Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton, Jim Thome, David Bell are just a few of the bigger checks. You can kill them for being stupid with that money - Lord knows, I have - but the larger-market successes, and even some smaller ones, have skeletons in their closets, too. Ask the Diamondbacks if Randy Johnson's season was any more productive than Garcia's.

Wouldn't you have liked to be sitting next to George Steinbrenner when Roger Clemens - whom he paid $28 million for two-thirds of a season - came out after 2 1/3 innings in the ALDS?

"You know what they did this year that they haven't in the past?" John Kruk said on the brink of the playoffs last week. "Chase Utley went down, they went out and got Iguchi. When those pitchers got hurt, they went and traded for Kyle Lohse and took on his contract. The free agents they signed - if they had a younger guy who was better, he played [Carlos Ruiz].

"Pat Gillick threw his ego aside and said play the best guys. I'm telling you, there are a lot of GMs out there who wouldn't do that, because they can't admit when they are wrong."

One recently hired one comes to mind, but that's water under the Whitman, right? Point is, many of us got to the point where we decided this team's only chance to shake off more than a century of bad baseball and join the contenders list was to shed itself of the existing hierarchy. I was one of those many.

Now, as Borat would say, not so much. Given the hard line Comcast takes in its dealings with start-up cable networks like the Big Ten Network, and a reputation for um, cost containment, are we really sure that its ownership would be more title-driven? The Roberts boys did not become kazillionaires by taking Adam Eaton risks, or taking on the big contract of an ace with a suspect arm.

Would they have absorbed a big chunk of Jim Thome's contract, enabling Gillick to bring Aaron Rowand here? As we debate the pros and cons of re-signing the Phils centerfielder, imagine for a moment that he wasn't here over the last two seasons. Does the image of a hard-playing, never-quit team exist? Or are we bemoaning another near-miss finish?

We have rewarded ownership's investment, for sure. Attendance this season was about 400,000 more than the Braves drew in their bigger park. As the team fought down the stretch, Comcast issued almost daily proclamations of a new ratings high. There is a civic feel about this team that hasn't existed in the 17 years that I have been a part of this town, because, in Montgomery's words, "It's a group of maximum-effort players."

"And," he said, "our fans perceive them as good guys, worth rooting for."

It doesn't hurt either that the team's biggest stars are homegrown. At various times over the last two seasons, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have been listed by national media as candidates for the league's Most Valuable Player award. Each was drafted by the team. So was Brett Myers. And Cole Hamels. And Kyle Kendrick.

Carlos Ruiz was signed as an amateur free agent. After the Phillies lost Saturday night, Gillick spoke hopefully about 20-year-old prospect Carlos Carrasco ascending to the majors next summer. Joe Savery, last year's top pick out

of Rice, could get there soon, too.

It's all created a buzz that P.T. Barnum would envy, not to mention Joe Banner. In a sense, this Phillies ownership group has already sold this team, and to the most skeptical collection of buyers out there:

Us.

So maybe from a business standpoint, it is a good time to sell. But if I had to listen to what they've listened to all these years, I'd probably want to hang around a little longer and enjoy the fun. *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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