Today, the Daily News begins a four-part preview of the Phillies' 2015 season. The focus of Part 1 is a discussion of a simple question: How exactly did the team get where it is today, seen by most as the worst team in baseball?
Part 2 will run tomorrow and answer the question: What is the team's biggest current concern? Staff predictions for the season also will be included.
Part 3, in Daily News Weekend, will profile one of the team's legitimate hopes for the future, third baseman Cody Asche.
Part 4, on Monday, will attempt to name the steps the team must take this season to make progress. Also, there will be a pullout season schedule with a list of giveaway days at Citizens Bank Park.
CLEARWATER, Fla. - Beneath the gray sky of a lingering front, two familiar figures ambled side-by-side across the leftfield grass. It's interesting how similar they look from a distance: same height, same broad shoulders, same casual gait. Charlie Manuel and Ryan Howard walked toward an open gate in the outfield fence, the latter clutching the barrel of a bat upside down in his gloved left hand. They would spend much of the next half hour in the nondescript pavilion-like structure that sits behind the wall, the old manager tossing baseballs from behind a protective screen, the old slugger dropping his hands and torquing his hips and smacking the deliveries back in the direction from which they came.
"That's it right there."
There is a rhythm to it. Everywhere, it is the same. Clearwater, Lakeland, Kissimmee, Disney. The veterans will tell you the key to longevity is to focus on the constant. The names and uniforms and circumstances might change, but baseball is its testament to the power of routine, of the control of what can be controlled. The ball, the bat, the glove, the mind.
Perhaps the biggest lesson the Phillies have learned over the last 8 years is the illusory nature of this sense of control. It can become a crutch, this focus on the here and now, a strategy that favors risk aversion over efficiency. There is comfort in the concrete, in the familiar. The band played on because that is what bands do, because that is what they know, because that is where they find their sense of control in an environment laden with uncertainty in risk. But music cannot stop a ship from sinking. Focus on the notes in the foreground and you might miss the iceberg in the distance.
Of course, it is not the band's responsibility to spot the iceberg, and maybe that is why you cannot watch Manuel and Howard without projecting a tinge of sadness onto the scene. You watch them walk away and you see that Wawa bag dangling from the manager's hand as he walks out of his office and down the concourse for the final time. You see the first baseman hobbling toward the home dugout as the visitors celebrate a series-clinching win on the opposite side of the field. It was not Manuel's job to spot the iceberg, but that did not prevent him from becoming its victim. Over the last year, Howard has endured a similar fate, in uniform only because his bosses have yet to succeed in their quest to send him away.
It is one of the many unfortunate ironies the Phillies have experienced in recent years, their outsized attachment to their superstar first baseman directly responsible for the strain between them. Red Sox owner John Henry once said that one of the greatest lessons he has learned is that ensuring the long-term success of an organization requires keeping sentiment where it belongs. When the Phillies tacked on an additional 5 years and $125 million to the 2 years and $39 million on Howard's existing deal in April 2010, they justified in part by saying that the first baseman had earned such a reward. In addition to locking up their star to a contract they thought would compare favorably with those signed by similar players on future free-agent markets, they were doing right by a guy who played a huge role in reviving baseball in the city of Philadelphia. But doing right by Howard has now led to an uncomfortable situation in which the club attempts to move into the future with a vestige of the past at first base. Both sides seem to understand there would be a mutual benefit to a parting of ways. But facilitating such an exit has proved to be a challenge.
From that perspective, Manuel's firing in August 2013 might have been the best possible outcome for the longtime manager. He left a sinking ship, and he did it as a martyr. And while he undoubtedly misses his former life, you have to think he is at least a little relieved to watch someone else answer for a team that no amount of managerial genius could save.
How the Phillies got to this point is a question whose dissection would require chapters. The simplest version of the chain reaction starts with the decision to trade Cliff Lee after trading for Roy Halladay in December 2009, which led to the decision to trade for Roy Oswalt, which, along with the Howard contract, diverted resources from re-signing or replacing Jayson Werth in rightfield, which led to the trade for Hunter Pence. The Phillies made each of these moves with the clear goal of improving the team in the here-and-now, but, collectively, they resulted in the sacrifice of a huge amount of prospects and payroll space that limited their ability to engage in a less painful form of rebuilding (the kind the Red Sox and Athletics and, perhaps to lesser extent, the Dodgers have executed in recent years, turning over their roster while also remaining competitive).
All of this is an oversimplification, of course. But if we were forced to pick a common theme, a lesson to be gained from the rise and the fall of the Phillies in the 21st century, it would be the importance of preventing one's faith in the familiar from overshadowing the risk and uncertainty that exists therein. One can argue that the Phillies were unfortunate to see Howard, Halladay, Oswalt, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee all suffer career-altering injuries within a short span of time. One can blame the fickle nature of fate for the failure of Domonic Brown to fulfill his potential and the health struggles of Tommy Joseph. Yet one can also argue that all of these developments were inevitable results of a roster that prioritized experience and track record and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately instead of what-are-you-likely-to-do-for-me-in-the-future. The Phillies did not leave themselves enough escape routes from a roster composed of the same type of player, and when that type of player proved susceptible to breakdown, they had little choice but to sit back and watch the entropy happen.
As Howard and Manuel worked in tandem in the cage, it was hard not to think of the better days. But baseball doesn't pause for reflection. It rolls on. As Manuel used to say, it is a day-to-day thing. The 2015 season is a new day for the Phillies. The only hope is that it leads to better ones ahead.