The chatter was flattering. The Phillies, after winning one World Series in 2008 and returning to the Fall Classic the following year, were dubbed the New York Yankees of the National League. It was a label they held through the 2011 season as their payroll escalated and their string of National League East titles extended to five.
Everybody who was anybody wanted to play here. A ballpark that had once been labeled a pitcher’s nightmare had become a desired destination. Roy Oswalt waived his no-trade clause to come here from Houston. Roy Halladay could not wait to be traded from Toronto. Cliff Lee, after being dealt to Seattle, so badly wanted to come back that he took less money than the Yankees offered to return as a free agent.
Even the Yankees envied the Four Aces who made the Phillies the preseason favorite to win the 2011 World Series. We know now, of course, how it all turned out as well as the exact moment it all took a turn for the worse.
Not much good has happened around Citizens Bank Park since that fateful night the Phillies’ 2011 season ended with Ryan Howard on the ground a few feet from home plate with a ruptured Achilles tendon as the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated a Game 5 division series victory that led to an eventual World Series title.
The Cardinals, with 11 World Series titles, are actually the closest thing the National League has ever had to the Yankees, who have won the World Series 27 times. And the San Francisco Giants, with three World Series titles since 2010, became the team of this decade. The Phillies, meanwhile, are two years away from going an entire decade without reaching the postseason, an inexcusable amount of time for a big-market franchise.
The magical moments all have rust on them now. The only recent celebrations have come in the form of reunions.
John Middleton, the Phillies’ managing partner and the man clearly in charge of the team now, once famously -- or perhaps infamously – said that he wanted his “----ing trophy back” after the Phillies lost the 2009 World Series to the Yankees. Middleton, a Philadelphian through and through, must have loved when his Phillies were compared to the Yankees. Even though he was more of a background figure at the time, he was a driving force behind Lee’s return. He wanted to spend big, and now that he’s in charge of the organization he would love nothing more than to make the Phillies the New York Yankees of the National League again.
He has another chance to move in that direction this offseason. Signing Bryce Harper to the largest free-agent contract in history last March was a very Yankee-like thing to do. To be more precise, it was a very George Steinbrenner-like thing to do. So, too, was the Phillies’ acquisition of catcher J.T. Realmuto even though the trade cost the organization its top pitching prospect.
Now, after a disappointing 2019 season that led to the firing of manager Gabe Kapler, Middleton has another chance to apply the WWYD – what would the Yankees do – approach. It appears his first step is going to be to add two accomplished baseball men with Yankees ties.
The first part of the equation came together Tuesday when the team announced that it has hired Brian Barber as director of amateur scouting. Barber, 46, was a first-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 1991 and was considered one of the Yankees’ top amateur scouts. It is never a bad thing to have someone with ties to the Cardinals and Yankees.
The bigger fish here, of course, is the manager, and all the signs are pointing to Joe Girardi as the man the Phillies/Middleton want to replace Kapler. Girardi, 55, landed with the Yankees in 2008 after spending one season as the Marlins manager and led New York to a World Series title in 2009.
The Yankees were growing old by that point, but they still won two more division titles and reached the playoffs six times in Girardi’s 10 years. With the cupboard restocked, Girardi’s final Yankees team just missed reaching another World Series in 2017 when New York lost a seven-game ALCS to the eventual champion Houston Astros.
Should the Phillies make Girardi their next manager, it will be fascinating to see how he runs the clubhouse compared to Kapler and to see how much he is influenced by the analytics department that Middleton wanted in place.
That, of course, does not mean the Phillies are going to win every World Series. The Yankees, in fact, just went an entire decade without winning it all for the first time since the 1980s and just the second time since the 1910s.
And if Middleton really wants to be like George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, he must follow up the hiring of Barber and Girardi with the signing of at least two of the best free agents on this year’s market. He probably has to be willing to exceed baseball’s luxury tax, too.