It was around late June or early July, Ruben Amaro Jr. was saying Friday, that he knew the Phillies were going nowhere.
The recognition was a long time coming. They hadn't been as high as third place in the National League East standings since April 22, and Cliff Lee was hurt and A.J. Burnett was pitching through a hernia and Ryan Howard and Domonic Brown hadn't hit at all and Chase Utley was fading after a fast start. Only then, Amaro said, did he and the franchise's decision-makers understand that it was time to stop kidding themselves about the sustainability of the Utley-Howard-Jimmy Rollins core, and it was that understanding that led the Phillies to trade Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two minor-league pitching prospects.
"At that point," Amaro, the Phillies' general manager, said Friday, after the trade became official, "we had to start having discussions about what direction are we going to take, and we got to the point this offseason that we knew it was time for us to kind of turn the page."
That Amaro pinpointed late June as the moment that the Phillies, at least from a philosophical standpoint, began their overdue rebuilding process was interesting. On June 29, David Montgomery - coming off surgery for jaw cancer in May, still ostensibly with all his power as team president - confessed to the Bucks County Courier Times that yes, the Phillies were indeed reluctant to rebuild, to say goodbye to the players who had been responsible for the franchise's recent glory years, to start fresh. The team's fans loved those players, Montgomery said in that interview, and if the Phillies traded them, the franchise risked a steep decline in attendance and interest. That was Montgomery's argument at the time: Loyalty still mattered.
Then, after the Phillies did not deal him before the July 31 trade deadline, closer Jonathan Papelbon told reporters that he was not surprised that the team had not make any major moves. "I had a really, really great talk with Ruben three or four days ago," Papelbon said. "Ruben had promised me that going forward we were going to still compete and no matter what it took to put a winning product on the field, he would do it." That apparently was Amaro's argument at the time: Trying to contend still mattered.
So here the Phillies are now - trading Rollins, trying to replenish their farm system, hoping a team will take Howard off their hands, open to the possibility that Utley would waive his no-trade clause and agree to be dealt, still in possession of two valuable commodities in Cole Hamels and Marlon Byrd - and what happened? Something happened. Montgomery began a health-related leave of absence in late August. Pat Gillick has become the interim president and has delivered a healthy dose of reality in his public comments, in his targeting 2017 as a reasonable date to start having reasonable expectations about the Phillies' competing again. And Rollins, after insisting all season that he wanted to finish his career with the Phillies, decided that he'd rather have an opportunity to win a second World Series with the team of his choice, instead of waiting for the only major-league organization he'd known to become respectable again.
Maybe it was the recession of Montgomery's influence. Maybe it was all those trends that they should have seen coming: Utley's decline over the last four months of the 2014 season, Howard's decline over the last three years of his career, the steady draining of talent from the farm system. Whatever. Something changed about how the Phillies viewed themselves, finally.
"The bottom line is that it is about wins and losses, and that's what it's all about," Amaro said. "I know [fans] like to identify with certain players, but in this business it's about wins and losses. And I grew up with some of these players as well. There is some sentimentality that is built in automatically, and that is one of the things that's important - to have our fans identify with our players. But at some point, you have to turn the page, and we're at that stage now."
That point, actually, arrived well before Friday. It just took the Phillies forever to see it.