The Phillies formed a limited partnership in 1981 to purchase the team for $30 million, and that group has operated with relative secrecy ever since. But greater expectations amid a rising payroll sidetracked by recent failures have prompted scrutiny, which was intensified by team president David Montgomery's medical leave in August.
There are few indications of an imminent ownership upheaval, contrary to a local TV report. The possibility of change in the future, given the ambiguity atop the organization, still exists.
Montgomery, who underwent extensive jaw cancer surgery in May and took a leave of absence in late August, was not "pushed out" by ownership, as suggested by a Fox29 report Thursday. Multiple sources strongly refuted that notion, and the team issued a statement Friday denouncing the report.
But two sources close to the situation confirmed that John S. Middleton holds a 48 percent ownership stake in the Phillies, a number correctly reported by Fox29. It is unclear how long Middleton has held such a share.
Those sources do not expect Middleton to make a push for majority control, although he has positioned himself to do just that. For now, interim president Pat Gillick has unilateral control of the franchise; he has delegated day-to-day business matters to Mike Stiles, a senior vice president for administration and operations. Ruben Amaro Jr., under contract through 2015, will retain his general manager position.
"Over the life of the Phillies partnership no one entity or family has owned a majority of the partnership," the team's statement said, "and we do not foresee this changing in the future."
The idea that Phillies ownership forced Montgomery from control is incongruous with decades of management decisions. Fox29 labeled Montgomery's sickness as a "convenient story" for his absence. The Phillies insisted that could not be further from the truth.
Sources close to the situation agreed, saying Montgomery would still be president had his cancer not prevented him from performing those duties. The Phillies expect Montgomery, 68, to make a full recovery and return to his post, although there is no clear timetable for that.
Another source said that Middleton, 59, recently addressed some team officials with the message that Montgomery's situation would not be reevaluated until at least January. The Phillies could then seek a permanent replacement; Dave Buck, a senior vice president for marketing and advertising sales, is viewed as a top internal candidate. (Buck is not related to the Bucks who are limited ownership partners.)
The team's president has always held an ownership share. That is what prompts speculation about Middleton, an influential and active voice among the ownership group. He sold his father's cigar business for $2.9 billion in 2007 and has become more visible around the team in recent months. Middleton and his wife, Leigh, were honored last May with the Philadelphia Award for their extensive philanthropic efforts.
But, in a May interview with The Inquirer, Middleton expressed his family's desire to maintain an anonymous lifestyle.
"We're spotlight avoiders," he said.
The recent deaths in the Buck and Betz families - the other limited partners along with Middleton, Montgomery and Bill Giles - could provide an opening for Middleton to gain more control. But those shares are expected to remain in those families, as designed by the 1981 arrangement.
Until such a change, Middleton remains one of many influential voices while the Phillies attempt to reverse their current misfortunes.