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Phillies ownership has a face after all

The announcement that Andy MacPhail had been hired to become president of the Phillies was the news of the day on Monday, but it was far from the most newsworthy event that took place in Citizens Bank Park.

The announcement that Andy MacPhail had been hired to become president of the Phillies was the news of the day on Monday, but it was far from the most newsworthy event that took place in Citizens Bank Park.

For the first time since 1981, someone with a significant ownership stake in the team was out front and visible as a part of the process of running the franchise. The last guy was Ruly Carpenter on the day he sold the team to a consortium formed by Bill Giles.

On Monday, John Middleton broke that 34-year streak during which the ownership group was content to let Bill Giles or Dave Montgomery be its public face. If fans have been waiting years for the old money to finally have a new idea, this might well have been their day.

"I think when you make a decision of this magnitude, the ownership group has to come forward and make sure people understand they are the ones that made the decision," Middleton said. "This is not a decision we delegated, much less abdicated. We own this decision. That's an important part of the accountability we think we have to the fan base to understand that we own this and we intend to win."

Over the course of the years since 1981, and particularly recently, the partnership has shrunk as the partners aged and their families decided to cash out. The vast majority of the team in now held by the two surviving members of Tri-Play Associates, cousins Jim and Pete Buck, and by Middleton, whose father bought 15 percent of the Phillies in 1993. Middleton now holds a 48 percent stake, making him the largest shareholder, but he denied reports that he has designs on becoming a majority owner with total control.

"I'm very happy with where I am now. Twenty-plus years ago when we joined this partnership, there were five or six owners. Now, it's down to two. Obviously, things can change in the future as they have in the past, but I'm not pushing for change," Middleton said. "As the ownership group has shrunk, the Bucks and my family have had increasingly larger positions and with that comes a level of responsibility different than it was 25 years ago. I think we have to acknowledge that and kind of step up."

That Middleton was on the dais along with MacPhail and lame-duck interim Pat Gillick was easily more significant than the passing of the presidential reins from one steady baseball lifer to another. Ownership, which has been the quietest of silent partners with the Phillies for decades, is apparently ready to clear its throat.

Montgomery, who took a medical leave of absence last year, returned to the team in January as chairman rather than president and without any day-to-day baseball responsibilities. He said Middleton and the Bucks encouraged him to accept the new role and then went about hiring Gillick as the interim and launching the search that eventually settled on MacPhail as the new president.

Middleton has clearly been frustrated, not just by the recent losing but by the apparently well-founded perception that the Phillies are not on the cutting edge of modern baseball thought. He emphasized Monday how important he thought it was to move the franchise forward in the field of analytics. As good a reputation as MacPhail has in the game, being open to new ideas was a real condition of employment.

"Others have done a better job of transitioning between eras than we have, and we need to find out why that is," Middleton said. "Andy's going to have complete decision-making authority, but Pete, Jim and I are going to be much more involved in the issues at an earlier stage than we were five years ago. That's not going to change. You don't want us making baseball decisions, trust me, but we need to be sure we're asking hard questions of the people involved in the process."

This is a natural evolution as the ownership stakes have increased. The entire team was sold for $30.2 million in 1981. The most recent Forbes valuation placed the current value of the franchise over $1 billion. These are not token investments spread among civic do-gooders any longer. If Forbes is accurate, for instance, Middleton's stake is approaching $600 million.

"We spent $18 million buying our initial interest in this team. We're a long way from $18 million now, so you have to take a greater role in the team. You have to," Middleton said.

Not that he likes the spotlight. In fact, he doesn't like it at all, and if things had not changed, he and his partners would probably have been content to stay behind the curtain. The last several years have pulled it aside, however, and, lo and behold, an actual owner sat behind the microphone and took responsibility on Monday. Middleton said we'd likely be seeing more of that.

"I think that's probably right," he said.

Well, we could hardly see less. After all, it had been 34 years since Ruly Carpenter said he had enough of the way things were going. John Middleton might have been saying much the same thing Monday. The only difference is he's not selling.