CLEARWATER, Fla. - The year was 2000. The Phillies and the Cleveland Indians were within minutes of completing a deal that would send ace Curt Schilling to the Indians for a package of players, several of whom would blossom in the years to come.
"A deal," said John Hart, then Cleveland's general manager, "that would have changed the dynamic of both clubs."
The Indians were trying to maintain a level of excellence that began in 1995. Fueled by great drafts, maintained by locking up their talented core group with long-term deals, the Indians acquired veteran starters and frugally built and rebuilt great bullpens as they competed with bigger spending teams to reach the postseason. From 1995 through 1999, they were a playoff team, the apex a 1997 World Series in which they lost to the Florida Marlins in the 11th inning of the seventh game.
But veteran starters such as Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez were now gone, and the structure Hart and his front office had so deftly created was cracking as the contracts of core players expired and they sought more lucrative deals. Schilling, though, could prolong it. Schilling would give him an ace.
"Minutes" before the deal was to be consummated, though, Schilling's agent informed then-Phillies general manager Ed Wade that his client had reduced the teams he would be willing to be traded to from six to five. Cleveland was out.
"I banged hard on that one," Hart said. "That was a heartbreaker."
The Indians fell one game short of the playoffs that year. They reached them in 2001, but lost to Seattle in the ALDS. Much of their core had departed for greener pastures, and Hart was scrambling to replace them. And when the last pieces left, the irony was inescapable:
Jim Thome signed with the up-and-coming Phillies in December 2002.
"When you're in the middle of it, you don't look at the darkening skies and say, 'Woe is me,' " said Hart, now an analyst with MLB Network. "You try to stay creative. I mean, we worked so hard to try and convince our guys to stay in Cleveland and keep the dynasty going. But it's just not the way of the world. When you have so many star players we had . . . They're just not going to stay in the fold. There's just too much money out there.
"And you can't blame them."
Once, the Phillies brass looked at Hart's model for guidance. Locking up Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, extending Ryan Howard with 2 years still left on his original deal, all trace to that philosophy. Their general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., was even a bench player for Cleveland in that era.
But there has been a sea change in that regard, and for several palpable reasons. With a sparkly fan-friendly stadium packed every night and advertising revenue at an all-time high, the Phillies have been able - and willing! - to reinvest in the talent on the field, even compete with and beat the big-spending clubs to acquire established talent. And while there has been a drain of minor league talent and high draft picks in doing so, their system continues to produce contributors to the major league club, including J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes.
You might notice all are pitchers.
"It's funny," Amaro said the other day as he watched pitchers stretch at Bright House Field. "When I first started working in the front office and thinking about building clubs, I was a position player, so, of course, I thought more bats . . . But I've come to realize, after watching and getting beat up by Atlanta all those years, that, really, if you want to keep your club in contention year in and year out, you've got to have the arms.
"If you can go out there and battle with solid pitching, you have a chance to win every single night. If you do not have pitching, then it becomes a challenge. It becomes a much bigger obstacle. Much bigger than maybe not having as much power one year. Or maybe not having as much speed. If you can pitch it, if you can catch it - it sounds cliché, but you have a chance to win every single night."
And if you have a glut of it, you also have a chance to acquire talent - as long as payroll constraints do not impair you. Hart had plenty of chips in Cleveland to keep his dynasty running. But in dealing the likes of Brian Giles, Richie Sexson and even Cliff Lee, the Indians were forced by a new ownership group to seek young, cheaper - and riskier - talent in return.
Some trades worked out. Some did not. But instead of maintaining, the Indians have been in a position twice this decade of rebuilding. After 2001, Hart moved on to Texas and has been with MLB Network for the last two seasons.
"I'm not real proud of all the deals I made with those young players," said Hart, who continues to serve in an advisory capacity with the Rangers. "And if they had been home-runs deals, slam dunkers, it might have worked out better for us."
The Phillies no longer have Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth and Brad Lidge from the group that won in 2008. But they've added Roy Halladay and Lee and, lest we forget, Happ was used to acquire Roy Oswalt, and they packaged one of their few up-and-coming position player prospects, Jonathan Singleton, in the deal to acquire Hunter Pence. They have made the postseason five straight seasons and are favored to make it six.
Are the skies darkening? Or will their coffers prolong their success well into this new decade?
"We're at a stage right now where, payrollwise, we have an advantage over other clubs," Amaro said. "So that even if guys start to leave us, we can reasonably replace them with guys who can have close to the same level of talent. Not that we can go out and outspend everybody. But at the level that we're at right now . . . if we can stay kind of at that level, or maybe slightly below or maybe slightly above, that gives us an advantage over 20, 25 clubs. So if I'm doing my job properly and we're making the right decisions, then we should put ourselves in the position to be contending every year."
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