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September 17, 2018

Angelo Cataldi: Phillies ownership, led by John Middleton, blew big opportunity in 2018

What is John Middleton thinking? 

When the Phillies had to postpone a game last week because of wet grounds – the first such rescheduling in the major leagues in 31 years – what was the reaction of the Phillies owner? 

When a team whose payroll he agreed to raise by $50 million for two free agents last winter collapsed in the final few weeks of the season, how did the boss feel? 

When his manager kept making oddball comments about how wonderful everything was while his team was imploding, was the billionaire businessman as perplexed as the fans? 

Every major development in the final days of this strange season leads back to the mystery man who makes all of the big decisions, Middleton – the same man who vowed to win at all costs a year ago and then vanished from sight. 

Middleton has never projected himself as a patient man. Well, his patience is under assault right now. In the big picture, the postponement was no big deal, even though it led to a crushing doubleheader loss the next night against Washington. What was significant is the message it sent to fans who never bought into the surprisingly good first four months of what was thought to be a rebuilding season. 

 If the Phillies couldn’t keep their field from turning into a quagmire – despite a state-of-the-art drainage system – then what else was the management screwing up? 

Remember, the organization is headed now by president Andy MacPhail, who has been even more elusive than Middleton, and especially so in times of crisis. Middleton and MacPhail approved huge free-agent deals for Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta – the latter becoming the first one-season, $30-million player in Philadelphia history – and then watched both fail spectacularly with the season slipping away. Weren’t the veterans brought in to prevent this kind of collapse? 

The sad truth is, only two players emerged in 2018 who appear to be building blocks to a better future, and neither is named Santana or Arrieta. They are ace starter Aaron Nola and slugger Rhys Hoskins. That’s it. All of the other young players – Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro, J. P Crawford, Zach Eflin, Seranthony Dominguez – fizzled when they should have sizzled. 

Meanwhile, three-plus years into the administration of MacPhail and analytics-obsessed GM Matt Klentak, the minor leagues are promising no immediate help. The best prospects remain in the lower minor leagues, years away (if ever) from stardom. 

The narrative over the next month is predictable, especially from an organization that has been as committed to public optimism as it is to statistics. Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler will point out that the Phillies’ record will have improved by 15 or 20 games. Heck, the Phils probably will have their first winning season since 2011. Hooray. 

But the fans are not stupid in this passionate sports city. Even for the most important contests late in the summer, they stayed away in droves. The first game of the rescheduled doubleheader last week had less than 500 fans in the stands. Minor-league games get bigger crowds than that. 

And Middleton has another problem, whether he realizes it or not. Kapler is becoming a source of serious fan frustration because he rarely tells the truth. The rookie manager sounds ridiculous when his team is hopelessly out of the race and he’s saying he still has “a chip and a chair” – a gambling reference – in the pennant race. 

So let’s review. The Phillies collapsed this season. They developed only two players to start the foundation for a championship. They failed to attract crowds even when they won. Their rookie manager has been alienating the dwindling number of fans who still care about the team. 

And they couldn’t even figure out how to protect their field from the rain. 

Wouldn’t you love to know what John Middleton is thinking right now? 

And finally . . . . 

 • Despite what you may have heard over the past week, Serena Williams is no role model. The greatest women’s tennis player of all time is a petulant, self-indulgent brat who is enabled by fawning media people who look the other way when she acts out. Her tantrums after rules infractions in the U.S. Open were not just an embarrassment to her, but also to all of her media apologists. Yes, that includes you, Al Morganti

• Has there ever been less interest at the start of training camp than the Flyers are experiencing right now? OK, they did add a solid scorer in James van Riemsdyk, but the lack of personality throughout the organization is going to make it harder than ever for the most loyal fan base in sports to pay $100 or more for a seat to a game this season. Congratulations, GM Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol. You have reached your goal. Everybody is asleep. 

• There is no end in sight for the longest GM search in American sports history, the pursuit by the relentlessly inept Sixers. It has now been 102 days since Bryan Colangelo packed up his wife’s fake Twitter accounts and left the job. Only recently has owner Joshua Harris begun interviewing candidates, none of whom are names any fan would recognize anyway. The question now is, does it matter if or when they do hire someone to run the franchise. Could anyone overcome clueless ownership like this? 

• The first sign of a soft defense is the way it plays on the road. In that regard, the Eagles defense is as cuddly as a teddy bear. Since the beginning of their Super-Bowl season in 2017, the Birds have given up 27.5 points per game on the road, but only 12.3 points at Lincoln Financial Field. There is no excuse for that disparity. If the Birds expect to repeat, they had to find a solution to the problem. Now. 

• Cornerback Vontae Davis of Buffalo retired from football at halftime of the Bills-Chargers game yesterday. “I shouldn’t be out there any more,” he said. Of course, there were calls all morning for Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills to follow suit. This is a cold city after a loss. A very cold city.