The Phillies did not yet know what their new ballpark would be called or where it would be built — maybe they’d move to Penn’s Landing or Broad and Spring Garden or remain in South Philadelphia — but they hoped in the early 2000s that a new home would be the transformation needed to catapult a franchise that seemed to be lagging behind.
Yet as the team moved forward, John Middleton began thinking about the past. Middleton, then one of the team’s owners and now the managing partner, thought about how the Phillies had honored their franchise greats at Veterans Stadium with retired numbers that hung above the outfield wall. Maybe they could do more at their new site.
Middleton began making a list of players to be honored, digging into the history of the team he grew up rooting for, and divided the players into “definite,” “probably,” and “possibility.”
“I still have that list,” he said. “The last time I modified that list is April 14, 2002. When I tell you this is a 20-year process for me, that’s the proof. Eighteen and a half years ago is the last time I changed this particular document.”
Middleton’s research could have been avoided if he simply followed the franchise’s ”rule” that only players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame would be eligible to have their numbers retired. Except, Middleton said, that “rule” was never actually a rule.
“It was clear that there was no formal policy. There’s nothing written down,” he said. “I looked at this supposed policy and said this just doesn’t make sense because we’re not really doing it the way we say we are. In fact, our history says we don’t do it this way. But it wasn’t my position. But frankly, it kind of irked me that we were inconsistent and unfair. If you look, for example, we retired Chuck Klein but we haven’t retired Ed Delahanty.”
The absence of that rule allowed Middleton to announce Thursday that the Phillies would retire Dick Allen’s No. 15 even though Allen is not yet in the Hall of Fame. The franchise’s “rule” was already outdated and questionable. Now, it has been discarded.
Honoring Allen likely creates momentum for his Hall of Fame candidacy, which should be decided in December. But it also allows the team the chance to consider retiring the numbers of the stars of the 2008 world champions — Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels — if they fall short of reaching Cooperstown.
“Philosophically, there are three ways I see for the retired Phillies alumnus to be honored,” Middleton said. “First is the Wall of Fame. The last is the Hall of Fame, which is the greatest. In between those two is a retired jersey.
“My view is that there should be that second step. There shouldn’t be just the Wall of Fame and then the Hall of Fame. There’s something actually in between that you can honor people who are great players, terrific players, but they may not make the Hall. And let’s be candid here: When you look at the voting of the Hall or the record of the veterans committee, it’s not exactly consistent. There’s a lot of times when you scratch your head.”
Utley, Howard, Rollins, and Hamels are locks to be on the Wall of Fame, but none is a sure bet to reach Cooperstown. If they don’t get enshrined, that would have immediately ended the discussion at Citizens Bank Park about retiring their numbers. Now, thanks to Middleton, that conversation can begin.
Middleton said he wrote a 3½-page policy about retired numbers. A player, Middleton said, must be a Hall of Fame-caliber player who enjoyed the majority of his major-league success in Philadelphia. Utley, Howard, Rollins, and Hamels have cases to make.
Utley’s career WAR (64.4) is the 15th-highest among second basemen, better than 10 other Hall of Fame second basemen. Rollins is the franchise’s all-time hits leader, and won an MVP award and four Gold Gloves. Howard twice led the majors in home runs, won an MVP award, and has the second-most homers in franchise history.
Hamels has the fourth-highest WAR among Phillies pitchers, was the MVP of the 2008 World Series, and combined for an ERA that was 27% better than the league average during the team’s postseason years between 2007 and 2011.
It would be nearly impossible to write about the franchise’s history without spending a good amount of time on those four players. But before Thursday, it would have been a battle to retire any of their numbers if they did not first receive a plaque in Cooperstown.
“So what does that mean for everybody else? Well, it means you don’t have to be in the Hall of Fame,” Middleton said. “Now, I hope Dick gets there. I think he should get there, but part of the reason I wanted to do this in advance of that is I wanted it to be a statement.
“I want Dick to know and other players to know that this is the policy that says if you’re good enough, and Dick is certainly good enough, you can certainly have your jersey retired.
“I think he’ll make it, I hope he makes it, but if he doesn’t, his jersey is still going to be retired because he’s earned it. The other players have to meet that standard.
“It’s not about personal preference. It’s not about who John Middleton likes. It’s trying to take bias out of it. It’s trying to inject objectivity into the process. This needs to be done rigorously and thoughtfully so everybody’s got a shot, but you have to hit the standard. If you’re not a Hall of Fame-caliber player, I’m sorry, I don’t know that you qualify.”
Middleton called Allen on Monday and surprised him with the news. The Phillies will retire his No. 15 on Sept. 3, the 57th anniversary of his major-league debut.
They’ll paint his number above Ashburn Alley and add an oversize No. 15 behind the left-field scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies, like Middleton dreamed of two decades ago, have figured out how to honor their past in their new home.
This winter could be Allen’s last chance to be enshrined in Cooperstown. The 78-year-old will be on the ballot for the Golden Days Committee, and early indications are that his chances are good.
His road to Cooperstown has not been easy. Bitter sportswriters left him off ballots in the 1980s, which was likely a fallout from Allen’s first tour in Philadelphia, when he clashed with writers and gained a reputation for being dysfunctional. The veterans committee did Allen no favors, and he fell one vote shy in 2014 by what was then called the Golden Era Committee.
Allen, Middleton said, had begun to give up hope that he would reach Cooperstown and have his number retired by the Phillies.
Middleton, who fell in love with the Phillies while watching Allen play in the 1960s at Connie Mack Stadium, changed that with one phone call. The old policy was blasted like an Allen home run over the Coca-Cola sign.
And now Middleton has four more players to add to his old document, and he’ll have to determine if the stars of perhaps the greatest era in franchise history are a “definite,” a “probably,” or a “possibility.”
“You’ve got to be at that level. This just isn’t something that is going to happen because you’re a nice guy. And that’s why I said you have to put it in writing,” Middleton said.