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Sorry state of affairs for Amaro and Phillies

It's rarely the harbinger of a great baseball season when a general manager has to begin things by apologizing at the outset for insulting one of the best players in franchise history.

Ruben Amaro Jr. (left) talks with Ryne Sandberg. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Ruben Amaro Jr. (left) talks with Ryne Sandberg. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

It's rarely the harbinger of a great baseball season when a general manager has to begin things by apologizing at the outset for insulting one of the best players in franchise history.

That, however, is how the glorious 2015 season began for Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. He privately told Ryan Howard he was sorry for saying the Phils would be better off without the big first baseman on the roster.

The apology was sincere insofar as Amaro did truly wish he hadn't said that out loud, but the meat of the issue - that the GM would prefer Howard were somewhere else - is not as easy to deny.

Howard's response hasn't been revealed. He could have said, "That's funny. I feel the same way about you." More probable, he told Amaro to forget it, although it's unlikely Howard will be able to do so himself.

It has been a recurring theme for the Phillies in their post-glory phase that the organization is always legitimately sorry for something it has done but lacks the skill or commitment to actually fix it.

There is regret that the farm system has been unable to produce enough quality players to fill the holes at the major-league level. There is sorrow that some very heavy contracts, including that of Howard, have proved too heavy to move when that becomes the desire. There is remorse that for every serviceable player who arrives by trade or free agency, like Ben Revere or Marlon Byrd, there is at least one Mike Adams, Delmon Young, or A.J. Burnett to offset the gain. There is further regret that older players get injured, phenoms fade, the marketplace changes unpredictably, and that, while a walk is as good as a hit, very few of them land over the fence.

So much for which to apologize. It might take years.

The front office's public position is that these things happen in baseball sometimes. Not every move works. Not every contract turns out to be a good one. Not every line drive finds a gap.

It is the modern nature of baseball that besets the Phillies now, according to Amaro, who will usually shrug, say that the team made mostly sound decisions at the time, and attribute the current state of the franchise to the vagaries of the game.

That's acceptable only if the front office is also willing to admit that its previous success was just as much of a fluke. Players stayed healthy and had career years at the same time and the Phils won a championship. (And thank goodness it was only the Tampa Bay Rays who swam between them and that shore in 2008.)

For five seasons, the Phillies won the NL East and were a serious contender. For three seasons since, they haven't had a winning record. Amaro is right that the decision-making process was the same during both stretches. Pat Gillick stepped aside, but he never stepped away. Gillick and Amaro consulted on every move even after the previous GM became a special adviser.

Now, Gillick is back as the team president - although not for long, or so he says - and brought with him the cheery news that a return to contention is still years from taking place.

Fans who believe the first step to turning things around would be the dismissal of Amaro are missing the point. Amaro didn't make the team good and he didn't make the team bad. He just happened to be in the chair when the tide rose and fell. There were some decisions that turned out terribly, but there isn't a baseball organization without a few of those.

Where the Phillies differ is their inability to sweep up the mess after admitting it is right there on the floor. Amaro said that when the team traded Jimmy Rollins and Byrd (absorbing about $6 million of their salaries to do so), it indicated that ownership is willing to allow the front office to make expensive baseball decisions.

Well, let's test that theory, and let's start with the $60 million still owed to Ryan Howard. If you really wish he were somewhere else, if you really believe the team won't be able to move forward until he is out of the way, then make it rain.

Everything else is minor compared to that. The Phils overpaid for Jonathan Papelbon, failing to foresee the change in the market for closers, and now hate him wicked. They failed to get value for Cliff Lee when there was still value to get. The same could be said of Chase Utley, who has vesting options in his contract that could keep him around until three months shy of his 40th birthday.

Oh, there are plenty of apologies to go around. But for Amaro and the Phillies, it seems there is always a big difference between saying you're sorry and really meaning it.