MacPhail, ownership content with club's formula

MacPhail, ownership content with club's formula

PHILADELPHIA -- Andy MacPhail's day planner for Wednesday, June 21, was almost completely blocked out by two notations. There was a game against the Cardinals that night at Citizens Bank Park. First, though, the Phillies' president would meet with the team's ownership group.

This is a routine, quarterly affair during which various department heads update the investors -- primarily managing general partner John Middleton and cousins Jim and Peter Buck -- on the state of the club.

June 21 wasn't a normal day, though. As MacPhail recalled during a media availability day at the stadium Tuesday, the Phillies had lost 12 of their previous 13 games at that point, while being outscored 73-31. They were on a pace to lose 110 games.

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Understand this: For most of the last 40 years, this team's ownership has chosen to remain offstage. In the absence of facts, the question of how much influence they exert over the baseball decisions has always been a matter of fascination and fierce conjecture among the fan base. And that speculation only increased when Middleton took over.

His image in the public mind was secured when shortstop Jimmy Rollins referred to Middleton as "Steinbrenner South," a reference to the legendarily demanding and impatient late Yankees owner. That was reinforced when he eventually stepped out of the shadows two years ago and made it clear that while he was willing to provide whatever resources were necessary, he would also require results.

It's not surprising, then, that as the Phillies got off to a disappointing start in 2017, many were wondering if Middleton would order big changes. And it was against that backdrop that MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak and others went into that midsummer meeting.

"No panic," MacPhail said Tuesday. "They knew. They get it. And we reminded them that while our issues were cosmetic, that it was ugly and I mean that in the strongest terms, our problems weren't structural. Our problems weren't necessarily all that serious. Our problems certainly weren't fatal. They'd been making the right investments over time and they were going to get rewarded."

The club president admitted he couldn't predict exactly when the dividends would start appearing in the Major League win-loss column. "Nobody can. But they are invested in the program."

This is good news. No fans should want an ownership that prioritizes the financial bottom line over winning the World Series. At the same time, nothing gums up the works quite like an owner who sends knee-jerk reactions down the chain of command every time his team loses two games straight.

It's a balancing act and, for now at least, the Phillies appear to have found the right formula.

One of the upshots of this is that it's likely that the Phils will, once again, not be making headline-grabbing free agent signings this winter. And if that makes you unhappy, rest assured that you have sympathetic ears in high places down at One Citizens Bank Way.

"We've already talked to ownership about it and explained to them why and wherefore. They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning," MacPhail said with a smile. "Ultimately, they were OK with it with one proviso: That if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it."

Which is not to say that money won't be spent. The Phillies are in the process of redoing the playing field, improving the lighting and public address system and upgrading the fan experience at Citizens Bank Park. They will continue to grow their analytics department while also adding more scouts and possibly adding a second Gulf Coast (Rookie) League team.

MacPhail often sits next to Middleton during games. "John is intense and he wants to win," the club president said. "He's also smart and he's been around the game long enough to know -- and it's part of our job to make him understand -- where we are in comparison to other clubs and what is obtainable now and what is obtainable in the future.

"So I think the answer is, he gets it. Yeah, he wants to win. And there will be a time where he's going to push us and push the payroll. But I think he's realistic enough and informed enough and knows enough to know where we are."

Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.