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Hagen's High Hard One

As you've probably heard by now, Daily News baseball writer Paul Hagen filed a devastating brief Wednesday about why the Phillies haven't made the playoffs in 12 seasons, and just once in the last 22. Here's the top-line summary:

Why haven't the Phillies won?

To find the answers, the Daily News interviewed more than two dozen people who have a knowledge of the organization's inner workings. Several themes emerged from the conversations with insiders who agreed to share their opinions, most only on the condition of anonymity. They painted a picture of a sometimes out-of-touch front office in which:

  • Winning baseball games isn't always the first priority. Said one respected baseball man: "The place is too intense on too many things that don't help the baseball side."
  • Decisions are sometimes made for the wrong reasons, such as how popular a player is with the fans.
  • Dissent is discouraged and the corporate culture is marked by suspicion, secrecy and an unrealistically sunny view of the short-term outlook. "It's too secretive. Everything is like the CIA there," one former executive said. "If you don't trust us, fire us. Like trades. The players know. The agents know. It's paranoia. They need to get more out in the open, be a little more honest with people."
  • There has been virtually no turnover among non-baseball executives. "They depend too much on their Phillies good-old-boy network," said the executive. "And I'm not talking just about the people in uniform, or who were in uniform. It's a stagnant organization. It's almost like somebody's got to die before they leave... It's the same bleepin' faces every year, from the parking-lot attendants on up."

Now, as an informed Phillies phan who's been following--nay, living--this team's phutility for years if not decades, your response to this assessment essentially might be: Duh. But the details and anecdotes Hagen shares are so good, so rich, and so damning of an organization that in a real sense doesn't deserve to win, that every phan should be mixing in mumbled declarations of gratitude amongst the cursing of Tom Gordon and Mike Lieberthal that deservedly followed Wednesday night's loss.

For years, marketing priorities have merged with and influenced abysmal player evaluations to produce a team in which... well, let's take two of Hagen's best anecdotes:

[Team Chairman Bill] Giles laughed when asked if he thought the marketing department had an undue influence. "It's never the marketing department. It's me," he said. "Everybody knows I was a marketing guy all my life. I do believe a lot in getting exciting players. Eddie Murray, John Olerud, Todd Zeile. They were pretty good players but, to me, they were boring players.

"I definitely have a bias toward fun-type players. And it may have hurt somewhere along the line."
"I remember that little centerfielder we got from the Mets [Ricky Otero]," one ex-baseball man recalled. "We were in a meeting and [former manager Jim Fregosi] said he might be a fourth or fifth outfielder. Bill Giles and Dave Montgomery said, 'What are you looking at? He's going to be our next Lenny Dykstra.' "

If there's a single culprit here, it's Giles, who has more esteem, in some sense, Ricky Otero than for Eddie Murray. Hey Bill: you know what's "fun"? WINNING.

Giles took over a championship-caliber team, and within six years managed to almost completely wreck it: in 14 seasons between 1987 and 2000, the Phillies finished over .500 ONCE. And the success of that one season--the monumental, delightful fluke known as 1993--somehow outweighed, in the minds of these clowns, what happened over the rest of the period. Just get some lovable personalities and the city will reward the club with love, devotion and dollars. This was the mindset that gave us Rex Hudler, and (as the piece also details) two additional years of Tomas Perez, whose unbelievably bad pinch-hitting last season (.400 OPS in 50 plate appearances in the pinch) probably cost us the "fun" of a playoff run.

Giles, who obviously considers himself a world-class marketing mind based on his work with the Phils in their glory era--the seven years before he bought the team--never seemed to grasp that wins, not "characters," are what secured that '93 club a place in Philly's heart, nor that it was the less than fan-friendly superstars Schmidt and Carlton who drove the club to greatness in the 1976-81 period.

While missing this big picture, they focus obsessively on fan reaction to individual moves:

One baseball man said: "They're too worried about what the press is going to say, what the radio station is going to say, instead of what's best for the team. It's all about perception. They don't seem to understand that the one thing that draws people and creates interest is winning." Said another: "My sense ever since I came here is that everybody is so concerned about the reaction to moves that it's difficult to step back and do things that will help in the long term. You can't worry about what the fans will say or what the media will say. You have to make good decisions. If you have good baseball people making the decisions, things will work out."

Let's hold that thought for just a second while we consider the following. In November 1996, the Phillies were finally, belatedly making a public commitment to rebuilding. No more Mark Whiten-type mercenaries would be brought in to plug holes amidst hopes of career seasons; homegrown talent would blaze the trail to a better tomorrow. Three thousand miles away, another club coming off a last-place finish was facing a similar decision, and the San Francisco Giants brought in a new GM, Brian Sabean, to start the process. In his first big move on November 13, Sabean dealt third baseman Matt Williams, a Giants icon, to Cleveland for three young players--second baseman Jeff Kent, infielder Jose Vizcaino, pitcher Julian Tavarez--and a player to be named later. Giants fans were enraged; Sabean pretty much had to come out in public and literally announce that he wasn't an idiot.

But to say the least, the deal worked out. In 1997, the Giants improved by 22 games and won the NL West; Kent drove in more than 100 runs in each of his six years with the Giants as the team finished first or second in every one of those years, and won an MVP award in 2000. His success, coupled with that of Barry Bonds and a beautiful new stadium, helped the Giants draw north of 3 million fans in each of his last three years with the team.

Is there any imaginable way, in this or any other universe, that the Giles-led Phillies would have dealt Williams for Kent? The story notes that Giles' successor as team president, David Montgomery, barely could be convinced to trade away Mickey Morandini after the 1997 season.

There's a lot more in the piece, and given that it's the first of a series we can assume that Hagen has a few more bullets chambered. But the question now is whether the Phillies have finally Gotten It: after all, they did something last fall that was unprecedented in the Giles era by bringing in an executive with credibility and two World Championship rings. Pat Gillick certainly seems less likely to bow to the marketing department when it comes time to decide yes or no on a trade; and if he wants to fire the manager, or the scouting director, or even the marketing team ("Red Means Go"? Please.), presumably he'll just go right ahead.

On the other hand, Gillick is 68. This is probably his last job, and if he fails to get the Phils into the playoffs, the rest of his resume still looks pretty good. If you wake up to find Ruben Amaro Jr.--another guy whose career with the team, as player and exec, arguably has had more to do with lineage and  loyalty than talent--your Phils GM in 2008 or 2009, about all we'll have to look forward to is another expose on the team's miseries ten years or so afterward.