Of the three men sitting on a dais inside Citizens Bank Park on Friday afternoon, there to account for the firing of Gabe Kapler as manager of the Phillies, only one was a native Philadelphian.
Andy MacPhail, the Phillies’ team president, was born into Major League Baseball, the grandson and son of two great and longtime executives, who has worked in Houston, Minnesota, Baltimore, and Chicago. General manager Matt Klentak is a New Englander by way of Xaverian Brothers High School in Massachusetts and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
But John Middleton, the franchise’s managing partner, is a Haverford School alumnus. He has had an ownership stake in the Phillies for a quarter-century. Of those three men, he understands the region, the way its people and sports fans think and act, the best. The relevance and power of that knowledge – and the evidence of just how much the Phillies’ decision-makers have been grappling with the unique nature of this region and its fans – became clear when Klentak was asked about the Phillies’ analytics department, the information the department provided, and the uses to which Klentak put that information.
“You have to be willing to take risks,” he said, “and I know that is tougher in this market than it is anywhere else.”
Later, Klentak was pressed on that point: Is this market holding you back? Oh, no, Klentak said. That wasn’t what he was saying. He was just saying that the Phillies needed to continue to push the envelope, to be cutting-edge in their thinking. And MacPhail chimed in: Attendance was up this season. TV ratings were up this season.
“This market is not an issue at all,” he said. “It’s a plus.”
Except this market was an issue during the two years that MacPhail, Klentak, and Kapler were together.
Those issues, of course, have at their root the results of the Phillies’ last two seasons. In 2018, they were 15 games over .500 and in first place, then collapsed down the stretch to finish 80-82. In 2019, after a slew of big-name, high-priced offseason acquisitions, they were one game better, 81-81, and faded in September again.
People wanted better and expected better, and the Phillies didn’t deliver. It’s that same old song: If you win, it doesn’t matter who you are. People around here will love you. Look at Charlie Manuel. Look at Doug Pederson.
Until you win, though, you have to show that you understand the market and the collective attitude of those who follow and root for your team, and too often, the Phillies have been tone-deaf to that reality.
There was MacPhail’s now-infamous quote, just before the trade deadline, when asked if the team’s reluctance to make a bold move might cause them to miss the postseason: “If we don’t, we don’t.” There was Kapler’s attempt at self-defense after an embarrassing loss to the Dodgers in June: “I’m not [expletive] Dallas Green.”
There was bench jockey Sean Rodriguez calling Phillies fans “entitled” for booing Rhys Hoskins. And there was Klentak on Friday, hemming and hawing and searching for just the right inoffensive words to express what he wanted to say about the struggles that the Phillies in general and Kapler in particular had in communicating to the fans and media.
“Kap had a hard time gaining acceptance,” Klentak said. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.”
No, he wasn’t. Kapler did not present well here, to phrase it in the manner that he himself would, and he wasn’t the only one, and his tenure should put the lie to the notion that, to survive this difficult and demanding market, a coach or manager simply has to be himself or herself, has to speak honestly and keep it real.
MacPhail was honest when he said the Phillies didn’t consider a big deadline move to make a late playoff push a risk worth taking. Kapler, whether he meant to or not, frequently gave off the impression that he was delivering a lecture during a late-night motivational infomercial, but in that Dallas Green quote, he was being real, and it didn’t matter either way.
People here want to hear what they want to hear. They want to hear that their teams are going to go for it and that they’re the best fans in the world. They want public anger after losses. They want their athletes and coaches and executives to emote.
They don’t want their coach just to win the news conference. They want their coach to kick the news conference’s ass. They want only the right kind of real, and if they don’t get it, they’ll take the right kind of fake over the wrong kind of real. Is that right? Is that fair? Those questions are irrelevant. It’s reality.
Middleton understands this. He admitted again Friday that he absorbs what he hears and feels from fans, the neverending feedback, and factors it into his decision-making. When the Phillies signed Bryce Harper, for instance, Middleton cited an online poll, conducted by an MLB.com reporter, that suggested that Harper would be a far more popular player here than Manny Machado would have been.
His insight into the market doesn’t necessarily lead him to make astute decisions – if anything, it might make him more reactionary and impetuous in his thinking – but it earns him the benefit of the doubt among many vocal segments here, as it did for Ed Snider, because the perception is that he will do anything, even be rash, in the name of winning. He says the right things, and that matters here, more than it does in most markets.
“I learned my lesson,” MacPhail said Friday, “not to give you guys the hammer to hit me over my head.”