For Phillies, no more business as usual

Posted: January 10, 2014

The history of the Phillies, for better or worse - and there have been many more seasons of the latter than the former - has always been a testament to a certain hidebound consistency.

Things change slowly, if at all, and the organization, while polite and mannered, has never taken much heed of what anyone else might think. In fact, the organization has basically been impervious to outside influence, which wasn't always a good thing but at least it was predictable.

This goes back to the Carpenter family, which owned the Phillies and whatever parts of Delaware didn't interest the Du Ponts, who actually are cousins of some sort. Bob Carpenter Jr. and then Ruly Carpenter ran the club in a very closed, patrician way and treated employees like family. This didn't extend to paying them, however, and Bill Giles said he was shocked when he took over the team in 1981 to discover the office staff wasn't doing much better than the field hands in New Castle County.

Nevertheless, the Phillies rolled on and, as Giles' leadership gave way to that of Dave Montgomery, the insular quality of the operation has remained intact. That's why Wednesday's announcement that the Phillies are removing Chris Wheeler from the broadcast booth, along with Gary Matthews, was more than a small surprise. The Phillies just don't do that kind of thing.

More to the point, they don't do things quite that way. But it's funny what $2.5 billion will buy these days.

According to those inside the Phillies organization who were willing to speak either on or off the record, the changes in the broadcast team were mandated by Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, which flexed the editorial oversight muscle it gained in the 25-year rights fee agreement that was announced last week.

Maybe that's the price of doing business now, but Wheeler won't get the chance to commemorate his long on-air career with a final broadcast and one last chance to warn against the possible dangers of no-doubles defense and middle-in pitches that drift over the heart of the plate.

That's how the old Phillies would have handled it if they chose to dump Wheeler in the river. They would have announced in spring training that Wheeler had decided this would be his final year and he would have gotten the farewell tour and the decency of a more dignified exit after nearly 40 years in the booth.

The folks at Comcast ain't that sentimental, apparently.

The quality and relative importance of baseball broadcasters is a subjective thing. Every viewer and listener will have a different opinion. For whatever reason, perhaps dating back to what was supposed to be a chilliness between Wheeler and Harry Kalas, many fans have decided they don't like Wheeler. Maybe there is a fatigue factor that sets in, regardless of the broadcaster, although if Kalas and Richie Ashburn were still around, you can be sure they would still be a team. People loved them, even as their attention to the details sometimes waned.

Whatever the source or cause of the criticism toward Wheeler, I never thought he deserved it. He is an excellent in-game analyst, knows baseball thoroughly, and prepares incredibly hard for a broadcast. None of that, of course, is necessarily what will make an announcer popular. That's just the way things are, and Wheeler understands the business end of it as well as anyone.

Within a baseball organization, which has a lot going on, the relative importance of who happens to be broadcasting the game isn't the first topic on the daily agenda. At a television station, however, it's pretty high up the list. In fact, there's not much else on the list.

So, when you get in bed with a television station - and those rights fees will buy some high-count Egyptian cotton sheets - you get in bed with that, too. We'll stop the metaphor right there before we reach the golden payoff.

Various analysts have said the Phillies didn't do as well in their television rights fee negotiations as some other baseball teams, and the deal, while lucrative, left a lot on the table and ceded significant control to Comcast. None of those analysts took part in the negotiations, or know the details of the advertising revenue agreement, or can properly calculate the value of the reported 25 percent equity stake in Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia that the Phillies also acquired in the deal.

Whether it is ultimately considered a good deal or a bad deal might not be known until 2040, when it expires, but, regardless, it is the deal and the Phillies are going to have to live with it. They also have to live with the realization that business as usual isn't any longer.

Ruly Carpenter decided to sell the Phillies when he picked up the paper to learn the Atlanta Braves had signed free agent Claudell Washington, a moderately talented outfielder, to a five-year contract that averaged $750,000 per season. When Washington was a rookie in 1974, seven years earlier, his salary was $17,500, and that was a world the Carpenter family understood. This new one, not so much.

Things change, though, and even patrician dynasties have to open the door eventually to welcome outside partners into the family. It took a long time, but that has finally happened with the Phillies. The wheel goes around, and yesterday, so did the Wheels.


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