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MacPhail continues family's baseball tradition with Phillies

Three-plus years of travel and books couldn't sever a lifetime's bonds, so last June, lured by the Humpty Dumpty challenge of reassembling the Phillies, Andy MacPhail came back to the family business.

Phillies president Andy MacPhail.
Phillies president Andy MacPhail.Read moreYong Kim/Staff Photographer

Three-plus years of travel and books couldn't sever a lifetime's bonds, so last June, lured by the Humpty Dumpty challenge of reassembling the Phillies, Andy MacPhail came back to the family business.

Yet as eager as the reeling franchise's new president is to tackle this daunting task, there is first, he knows, a nightmare to confront.

Early on Feb. 18, 1969, MacPhail's oldest brother, Lee III, the Reading Phillies' new general manager, was returning home after speaking at a Wyomissing banquet.

Just ahead, near where the twisting West Shore Bypass crosses over the Schuylkill east of Reading, a car spun out of control. MacPhail's 1964 Volkswagen slid into the vehicle. A spare tire punctured the VW's gas tank. Instantly, the compact burst into flames, burning its driver, 27, beyond recognition.

"I can honestly tell you that I've been dreading that first trip to Reading," MacPhail, 15 when his brother died, said last week.

MacPhail's return to baseball has brought him full circle, back to his late brother's organization. Then again, no matter where the 62-year-old landed, he was bound to encounter some reminder, most more pleasant, of his family's remarkable baseball legacy.

Near his senior photo in Dickinson College's 1976 yearbook is a quote from former United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold that could have been intended for the young American studies major with the blond, Prince Valiant haircut:

"We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny."

Given his rich baseball pedigree, his frame might have seemed like an insurmountable wall - to everyone but MacPhail.

His colorful grandfather, Larry, had been a groundbreaking executive with the Reds, Dodgers, and Yankees. His widely respected father, Lee, had worked with the Dodgers, Yankees, and Orioles and was the American League's longtime president. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

But if baseball filled his privileged youth in Baltimore and New York, Andy MacPhail never believed it would be his life's work.

"It was not something I had a great passion to do," he said. "It was the path of least resistance."

Whether he realized it or not, it appears from 2015's vantage point that MacPhail was always pointed toward the career that began with a $500-a-month job as business manager of the Cubs' rookie-league team in Bradenton, Fla.

As a boy, he'd visited his grandfather's Maryland farm, where he saw the artifacts and heard the stories from one of baseball's most fascinating characters. He worshipped the Baltimore Orioles and accompanied his GM father nightly to Memorial Stadium. At spring training, he met and sometimes dined with baseball luminaries the elder MacPhails knew.

He also played the game throughout his youth, at Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx, with the amateur New Rochelle Robins, and finally at Dickinson.

It was as a Dickinson senior that MacPhail got some life-turning advice from another older brother, Allen, who had worked briefly in baseball.

"Allen said the hours were longer and the pay less," he said. "So if I had any interest in baseball, he said I'd better do it right out of college."

MacPhail wrote all 24 big-league teams, heard from four, and soon embarked on the path everyone but him had envisioned.

He went from the Cubs to Houston to Minnesota, where as Twins GM he won two World Series. He returned to the Cubs and successfully built them into a playoff team. He started that process in Baltimore, but in 2011, when his contract expired, he walked away.

This June, after 31/2 years away, he resurfaced as the Phillies president. Though he knows his impressive DNA will be tested by this staff's dismal ERA, he hopes the lessons of a baseball life will inform one last turnaround.

Whatever the outcome, MacPhail will have no regrets.

"Andy has the courage to make a decision," his father, who died in 2012, once said, "and once he's made it, he never second-guesses himself."

The youngest of four boys, Andrew Bowen MacPhail was born in April 1953, just as the Yankees, whose farm director was his father, were embarking on their record fifth consecutive championship season.

In 1958, Lee MacPhail became the Orioles GM. He bought a large brick colonial in Baltimore, 20 miles south of his father's Bel Air farm, and enrolled his boys at Baltimore Friends.

Andy was briefly the family's rebel, occasionally running away from home. He was closest in age to Bruce, who would describe his younger brother as "a little flaky growing up."

Those two often accompanied their father to Orioles games, where strict ground rules were set. If they were going to develop an appreciation for baseball, Lee MacPhail believed, it would grow from the game itself and not any hero worship facilitated by special access.

"He was very careful to exclude me from the clubhouse," MacPhail said. "That was very sage. I would sit behind the screen and watch the games. Then my brother and I would wait outside in the lit parking lot throwing a ball around until dad came."

Sometimes, waiting in his office, they'd review scouting reports or absorb minor-league statistics. They developed a contract-negotiating game where one was the GM, the other a player.

Their affection for the Orioles was not diminished. MacPhail, especially enamored of Boog Powell, can still rattle off their early 1960s lineups.

The family moved back to New York in 1965, to Hartsdale, when Lee, later the Yankees GM and AL president, became assistant to commissioner William Eckert.

Andy attended his father's tony alma mater, Riverdale Country Day, where he made the baseball team. Later, in two college summers, he played outfield for the amateur Robins.

"Andy was a good player, not a great player," New Rochelle coach Dick Caswell recalled. "But we knew the family situation. It was obvious he was going into the behind-the-scenes part of baseball."

It was at Riverdale that he learned of his brother's accident.

"When they pull you out in the middle of class, you know it's not good," he remembered. "At that same time, my dad was in the hospital with heart issues. So there was a lot coming down on you at once."

In 1972, Andy followed Bruce to Dickinson. Preppy in a hippie era, he joined Kappa Sigma fraternity and, because his father urged him to study history, majored in American studies.

"It was a great advice," MacPhail said. "American history teaches you about the American psyche. That's always evolving, but you do get some insight into how Americans think and those unique qualities that are American."

MacPhail played four seasons on the Division III Red Devils, who in his junior and senior seasons were a combined 13-20.

"Andy was a very knowledgeable baseball person and a good player," recalled his coach, Rich Wagner. "He was very personable. I never met anyone who didn't like Andy."

Wagner's most vivid MacPhail memory came in his senior season. Dickinson, trailing host Swarthmore, had loaded the bases with two outs in its final at-bat. MacPhail hit a slow dribbler to third.

"The infielder threw it into right field," recalled Wagner. "I waved one runner in, then two. I looked home and Andy was still standing there, yelling 'Run! Run!' I got his attention and he finally started to move. He beat the rightfielder's throw to first by half a step."

MacPhail's Dickinson stats aren't available.

"Thank God they don't have them," he said. "That way I can lie and embellish them."

With a father who also was a brilliant scout, he learned his baseball limitations early.

"In high school, dad told me baseball as a profession was not going to be in the cards," MacPhail said. "It was hard to argue."

The first team to answer his job-seeking letters was the Montreal Expos, whose GM, John McHale, was his father's close friend.

"This was nepotism working to its fullest," MacPhail recalled.

But when Lee MacPhail allowed the AL to expand to Toronto, Expos owner Charles Bronfman ordered the job offer rescinded.

"I'm the only guy in baseball history to get fired before I even started," he said. "Nepotism is a double-edged sword."

The Cubs had also contacted him, and two weeks after his Dickinson graduation, MacPhail was in Bradenton.

"It was an intellectually trying job," he joked. "I had to hand out paychecks every two weeks and make sure the players kept their rooms in order. Any high school grad could have handled it."

His latest job, Phillies fans suspect, won't be as easy.