Gather 'round, Phillies fans -- you too, John Middleton -- for a short story:
Eight years ago, in November 2011, then-Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington went to the GM meetings with the intention of presenting his choice from a field of five managerial candidates to his bosses. But after taking Dale Sveum to lunch with ownership, Cherington returned to the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee and told reporters that the search would continue.
A few weeks later, the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine, the preferred candidate of club president Larry Lucchino. Cherington and Valentine clashed, the Sox crashed, and 10 months later, after 93 losses and more drama than an episode of Mad Men, the team was hunting for a manager again, with Lucchino finally agreeing to let Cherington make the call.
The moral of the story: If Middleton likes Matt Klentak as much as he claims he does, if he still trusts the 39-year-old to run the Phillies' baseball operations, then he must allow him to select the next manager.
Otherwise, there’s really not much point in Klentak’s being here.
There were times Friday during a 57-minute news conference at Citizens Bank Park when Klentak looked as though he wasn’t sure why he was there.
Middleton did most of the yakking, including a nearly 10-minute speech in response to the perception that he cut off Klentak at the knees by firing the manager that he hand-picked two years ago and fought to keep during this season’s final weeks, two months after dumping the hitting coach that he publicly endorsed and defended.
Yeah, it was awkward. And then there was this: With Klentak seated to his right, Middleton answered for whether his confidence in the general manager is shaken.
"No," Middleton said, flatly. "Nobody bats 1.000 in hiring decisions. I haven't. So, it's early in his career, but I would also point out he's made lots and lots of really good decisions, too. No, I think what this should be is a learning experience, candidly."
Presumably, the 24-month Kapler Era taught Klentak about the unique challenges of marrying a forward-thinking, analytics-literate modern manager with Philadelphia, a traditional, set-in-its-ways and hyper-demanding city. Then again, if it were up to Klentak, a Dartmouth-educated native New Englander, Kapler would still be going to work every day in his office within the Phillies clubhouse.
In one of the rare moments when Klentak spoke at the news conference, he gave an impassioned defense of Kapler, who had one year left on his contract after posting a 161-163 record in the last two seasons, including a 20-36 mark over back-to-back Septembers that Middleton said he “kept bumping up against” in his lengthy deliberation about the manager’s future.
“I think back to the exchange Kap had with you guys just about being like Dallas Green -- ‘I’m not like Dallas Green,’ with maybe some more colorful language,” Klentak said. "Kap had a hard time gaining acceptance, you know?
“I don’t think this a secret, but I’m a big fan. I think he’s really good at what he does. I think when you look at a lot of the ways we developed culturally, a lot of the growth that we have had both at the major-league level and under the hood that people may not see, I don’t think we make those strides if Kap is not our manager. And I know there are a lot of people in this building that feel the same way I do.”
In the end, though, only one person mattered. And Middleton wasn't moved.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether the billionaire managing partner, who identifies as the Phillies’ CEO and burns to return the franchise to a sustained period of winning, should have faith in Klentak.
Over the last three seasons, the Phillies have improved from 66 to 80 to 81 wins. But the farm system hasn’t yielded much talent despite an influx of high draft picks.
Klentak has followed through on Middleton’s directive by adding to the research-and-development department and changing the processes by which players are taught in the minor leagues, but there are questions about whether the Phillies are trending too far to the analytics side after years of neglecting it.
“To be a forward-thinking organization you have to be willing to take risks, and I think that’s tougher in this market than it is just about anywhere else,” said Klentak, revealing again that he’s still grappling with understanding Philly. “But if we want to do what John has asked us to do, which is to continue to push forward and be a great organization and compete year in and year out with the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, we have to be willing to continue to push the envelope at times. We recognize the realities of our market, but we have to continue to push.”
Middleton gave Klentak a three-year contract extension in the spring, a reward for an offseason that he viewed as wildly successful. He also insists its perfectly natural in any business for a CEO to step in and intervene when he believes it’s necessary.
That’s what happened, Middleton said, in the dismissals of hitting coach John Mallee and Kapler. And maybe it will happen when it comes to the hiring of the new manager.
“If you talk to the people who ran the companies and reported to me over those 30 or 40 years, they will tell you, ‘John steps in with us and he says, ‘No you can’t do that, you’re going to do this instead. I’ve listened to you, but you haven’t convinced me,’” Middleton said. “There is lots of talk about how that emasculates people, but that’s nonsense. That doesn’t do anything like that.”
But baseball is different from Middleton’s family tobacco business. It’s imperative that the manager and GM have a synergistic relationship. Just ask team president Andy MacPhail.
"I don't think there's a relationship in a baseball organization more important than a manager and a GM," MacPhail said. "If those two aren't simpatico, you really have issues.
“It’s John’s and my goal that Matt go out, start the search. At the end, he’s going to have to have the approval of John and I, just like with Gabe. John or I could have vetoed Gabe. We chose not to. But I can’t imagine us hiring somebody that Matt is not fully on board with.”
Just like Middleton wouldn’t get rid of a manager whom Klentak wanted to keep?