Phillies don't understand what it takes to build a winner

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. speaks beforea game on July 31, the day of the trade deadline.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. speaks beforea game on July 31, the day of the trade deadline. (AP)
Posted: August 04, 2014

Yankee Stadium. The visitors clubhouse. Not long after midnight on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009. The Phillies had just lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games, failing in their attempt to win back-to-back championships, and Ryan Howard, having struck out a record 13 times in the Series, having already showered and changed into his street clothes, sat at his locker, slipping on a pair of gleaming white sneakers.

A man in a Phillies windbreaker and a Phillies cap knelt down in front of Howard. What the man said to Howard - in the light of today, with five years of hindsight and perspective - was revealing. It offered an insight into why the Phillies fell so far so fast, why they're bound to be bottom-feeders in the National League for years to come, and why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. just couldn't understand why no other teams wanted to acquire any of the Phillies' good players before Thursday's trade deadline.

The man who knelt before Howard was John Middleton, a billionaire and a limited partner in the Phillies ownership group.

"I want my [expletive] trophy back," Middleton said to Howard, putting his right hand on Howard's left shoulder and squeezing it. "It's [expletive] ours."

With those words, the Phillies - who over their first 125 years of existence had experienced little more than a decade's worth of sustained excellence - began trying to do something with which they were unfamiliar. They began trying to sustain excellence, and they did so in the manner of a ne'er-do-well who'd just happened to notice he was holding a winning Powerball ticket.

They spent money. They spent it on players they already had (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz). They spent it on players they didn't have but wanted (Roy Halladay, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett). They spent it on players they'd already had and gotten rid of but wanted back (Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd).

It was, in truth, an immature way of attempting to capitalize on their good fortune, a strategy befitting a franchise that hadn't won much in its past and that stumbled into the greatest era in its history. Remember: After he traded away Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle in 2006, Pat Gillick, then the Phils GM, said: "Realistically, it's a stretch to think we're going to be there in '07." Gillick thought he was sacrificing the season, not paving the way to five consecutive division championships, two NL pennants, and the team's 2008 World Series victory.

Once Amaro took over for Gillick, though, the Phillies didn't act as if they were confident in their ability to continue winning over the long term. The hard tasks and forward-thinking decisions that go into building and maintaining the infrastructure of a quality baseball organization seemed of secondary concern to them.

Whether they couldn't carry out those tasks and make those decisions or didn't believe they could afford to was, in the end, irrelevant. All that apparently mattered was keeping their good players and adding more good players - not players who might be good three or four or five years from now, but players who were good right now, because if they were good right now, why wouldn't they be good three or four or five years from now?

Of all the mystifying aspects of Amaro's passiveness at the trade deadline and his explanation for it afterward, the most striking was his dumbfounded reaction to the relative lack of interest in the players he was making available.

"I don't think the clubs were aggressive enough for the talent we have on our club," he told reporters, as if proven major-leaguers were inherently more desirable than prospects with uncertain-if-promising futures, as if a player's value was unaffected by his contract, his age, the arc of his career, a more-sophisticated understanding of his role's importance, the presence of other franchises with more and more-appealing assets, or any number of factors beyond whether one particular player might help his team win a game on one particular night.

In that single day of inactivity, in Amaro's apparent belief that the last-place team he'd built has too many good players to just give them away, this franchise went from desperate to delusional, and all the false hope in the world won't change the Phillies' mistakes or the still-rippling ramifications of them.

Doing what's necessary to compete for championships is not the same thing as trying to buy a championship, and as macho as John Middleton sounded that night in New York, it's clear now that the Phillies never understood the difference. They want that bleeping trophy back, but they don't seem to recognize that it was never so easy to keep, and that it won't be theirs again for a long, long time.


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