Bill Conlin | Phils' part-owner has money to burn

Posted: November 14, 2007

NOBODY SAID IT is easy to crack the Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. And once you crack it, just being a billionaire doesn't always hack it.

Eighty-two billionaires were dropped from the 2007 list. Oh, the shame. The cutoff fortune was $1.3 billion. George Steinbrenner was a few bucks from not making the list. The Yankees' said-to-be-ailing owner tied for No. 380 and last with a paltry $1.3 billion, just $100 million more than the current valuation of his ballclub.

John S. Middleton was not on the list. But that is because the 2007 list was published before giant conglomerate Altria (formerly Philip Morris) purchased Middleton's privately held family business, John Middleton Inc., for a breath-catching $2.9 billion in cash. The net after taxes and other expenses was $2.2 billion.

John S. Middleton, part man, part Stealth bomber, is a limited partner in the Phillies' ownership group. Middleton's Double Play Inc. shares rank No. 3 behind those of Claire S. Betz and the Buck Brothers' Tri-Play Associates.

John Middleton Inc. manufactures large, machine-made cigars in two local plants employing approximately 550 workers. It is eminently clear that Altria, seeking to exploit the exploding (no pun intended) cigar market as a hedge against declining sales of its many cigarette brands, is paying that huge sum of cash for the brand, not the company's modest assets - even though it has been a big, fat, cash cow. John Middleton Inc. will have projected sales of $360 million this year, generating operating income - profit to you - of $182 million.

So, take a step back from the staggering numbers, and listen to Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. singing the daily chorus of "Poor Mouth Blues." Sung to the tune of "Rowand, Rowand, Rowand Your Boat." With a third banana, limited partner suddenly and certifiably sitting on an incredible stack of money, we are left with this:

Manager Charlie Manuel will be filling out a lineup that includes a bench-level player at third base, where the Phillies had the feeblest production in the National League last season. Brett Myers is being jerked back into the rotation after making his bones as a feared closer. GM Pat Gillick will pursue another starter and some outfield depth. Carefully. The Phillies will have about $12 million to $15 million to spend on acquisitions after factoring in salary bumps to key regulars like Ryan Howard. In other words, the Phillies will not be trying to buy a World Series title.

Club president Dave Montgomery and his silent partners put together the 2008 budget well before John S. Middleton potentially became the wealthiest fractional sports owner in Philadelphia history.

In a brief statement, Montgomery dismissed any connection between Middleton's windfall and his role as a Phillies investor: "John Middleton is a limited partner with the Phillies and his personal and business interests have no impact on the operation of the ballclub."

Middleton himself makes the Da Vinci code look like a level-1 Sudoku. The 1977 Amherst College graduate flies so low under the radar he should be registered with the Bureau of Mines. He inherited his Phillies piece and the umbrella for the family businesses, Bradford Holdings, from his father, Herbert H. Middleton, also an Amherst alumnus.

When John received the college's Medal for Eminent Service at the 2004 commencement ceremony, the program included this about him:

Middleton values family above all else, and Amherst is well represented among his kin. The proud son of an Amherst father - and brother to an Amherst sister and her Amherst husband - Middleton heads his family business, which include McIntosh Inns, Bradford Holdings, and Double Play, Inc. . . .

I have a professional relationship with a man who informed me recently that he was an Amherst class of '77 grad and knew John S. Middleton fairly well. "John had a small circle of close friends and a somewhat larger group of people he was friendly with," the source said, requesting anonymity. "I was his friend but not what you would call a close one."

A picture emerged of a less than brilliant student who was doggedly competitive in everything he undertook, particularly on the wrestling mat. "I don't recall his weight class, but it was at least 175 pounds. He was powerful and aggressive, actually a little nasty in his matches. John was just determined to be the best he could be in everything. But he was very, very private and always turned away from self-promotion or praise."

The family money goes back to a time when Philadelphians wore round hats with square buckles and said "Bleep thou." The tobacco business began in a small local shop in 1856 and has been passed to five generations of Middletons. John runs and stays fit and it is said he has never felt comfortable with the tobacco business. In fact, for Googlers the only hard news about a company that will sell 1.2 billion units in 2007 was a successful suit brought by the FTC in 2000 charging John Middleton Inc., and the six other largest U.S. cigar companies with failure to display the Surgeon General's Warning on its cigar packages.

The really dense part of the mushroom cloud of money billowing over the Phillies, of course, is that limited partnerships come with thick armored plating. Montgomery runs the show. He just reaffirmed that fact. The partners are supposed to stay out of the way, and these partners do. It is fairly well known that John S. Middleton has been an outlier on some issues - breaking loose the money to sign Jim Thome was thought to be one of them. When the ballclub took the 500,000-plus attendance hit that led to the firing of GM Ed Wade, Middleton was fingered as a possible backer of a change in CEOs. There were whispers, never confirmed, that Middleton was friendly with former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, Amherst class of '80, and had him in mind for a possible role in the partnership group. It was probably cocktail-party babble. Duquette currently is director of operations for an Israeli baseball league that launched in the summer.

So here we are. A man with the No. 3 slice of the Phillies has more than enough money to buy the whole enchilada. Hell, he's probably got enough to buy the Yankees and Manchester United with change left over to sign A-Rod and Ronaldinho.

This could be one of the most important "Stay Tuned" messages in Philly sports history. Or it could just be so much static crackling harmlessly in the back channels while Dave Montgomery jams all frequencies.

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Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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