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July 06, 2015

Finally, a glimpse of the man who is going to save the Phillies

During one of the worst seasons in their history, the Phillies found a savior last week. His name is John Middleton, and he is going to make them great again.

When Middleton introduced Andy MacPhail as the team president a week ago today, the cigar magnate did more than just represent the new face of ownership at an important news conference; he created a welcome wave of optimism for a ballclub in disarray. Middleton is exactly what the Phillies need, at a time when they most need it.

First of all, he is incredibly rich. He sold his cigar business in 2007 for $2.9 billion. That’s billion. Second, he lives baseball. As he said last week, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – he wants more than to own a championship team again. And third, he has the chutzpah to realize that dream.

It was no coincidence that Middleton suddenly appeared, after 22 years as a faceless minority owner, at MacPhail’s coronation last week. For years, Middleton has been trying to take control of the franchise from Dave Montgomery and the old-boy network that lucked into a championship in 2008 and has overseen its destruction ever since.

And now he has. 

Middleton has most often been compared to the late George Steinbrenner, although it is already clear that the Phillies owner has far more public grace than the Yankees patriarch. Using no notes, Middleton started his first news conference with a dissertation on his quest for success that was equal parts eloquent and encouraging.

“The mandate is to win,” he proclaimed at the crescendo of his address.

Granted, all sports owners say the same thing every time they speak in public, but Middleton’s words carry more weight than Montgomery’s – or Giles’ before him – ever did. Middleton has already won big, in a business world every bit as competitive as baseball. He is not sentimental about icons in decline. Winning is the only thing he knows.

Exactly how he managed to push the Montgomery faction out of power is a matter of speculation at this point. Middleton still owns only a minority share – 48 percent – of the club, and he was careful to include his two main partners, James and Peter Buck, whenever referring to the team’s ownership last week.

But it’s clear now that Middleton is in charge, the bold new leader of an organization that has lacked one for years. It was Middleton who led the search for MacPhail, and it was Middleton who dominated the conversation at the new president’s news conference. Conspicuous by their absence in the president search were outgoing president Pat Gillick and Montgomery, the chairman who once led all such efforts.

Even at 62, MacPhail seems an inspired choice, both because of his extensive experience and because of his own championship pedigree. MacPhail won the World Series in Minnesota, and rebuilt dreadful teams in Chicago and Baltimore before taking a three-year sabbatical from baseball to check off some items on his bucket list.

MacPhail is a member of the Phillies front office today because Middleton wanted him to be, and because the owner is committed to winning. During an interview on my WIP radio show, MacPhail said he was impressed by Middleton’s promise to provide the money and the support for a quick rebuild.

How much does John Middleton want another championship? 

The best story about the owner is his reaction in the locker room after the Phils lost the 2009 World Series to the Yankees, a year after one of the best sports parades in American history.

“I want my bleeping trophy back,” he said. “It’s bleeping ours.”

By the way, he didn’t say bleeping.

What exactly is Chip looking for?

Now I’m really confused. 

Chip Kelly has purged from the Eagles roster all of the players who didn’t meet his rigorous standards for character, and then he signed a truly troubled soul named John Moffitt last week? Does this make any sense at all?

Granted, Kelly’s decision to cut Evan Mathis because the Pro Bowler had the audacity to ask for more money left the coach in desperate need of a guard to protect brittle quarterback Sam Bradford and open holes for quick-hitting runner Demarco Murray. 

On the surface, however, Moffitt seems to be the worst possible choice for that assignment.

A third-round pick by Seattle in 2011, he lasted 13 games as a rookie before a knee injury ended his season, leaving him – by his own admission – free to binge-drink and indulge in marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy. Along the way, he also found time to accumulate an impressive rap sheet, for drug possession, public urination and assault.

Unfortunately, Moffitt was far less prolific as a football player. He had brief stops in Cleveland and Denver before retiring at 26, sick of the grind of the NFL. The New York Times featured him in a piece last November that described how the NFL life is not for everybody.

And now – after a stint in rehab – Moffitt is going to try that life again under the rigorous demands of Chip Kelly, whose sports-science approach requires the utmost in discipline and commitment? Really?

Hey, the Eagles love to give players second chances (see: Michael Vick), but that’s not the real issue here. Who knows? Maybe Moffitt truly has found a new way to deal with the pressures of the NFL. Here’s the real issue: Is John Moffitt a better choice to play guard on the Eagles offensive line than Evan Mathis?

As far as I can tell, there’s only one person who believes that. Someday, maybe Chip Kelly will explain how he makes decisions like this. Until then, I plan to remain really confused.

When will Hinkie cash in all these assets?

Sam Hinkie made an excellent trade last week with Sacramento, but can we all just hold off a little longer before planning the parade for the reclusive GM and his overmatched Sixers?

His deal for young shooter Nik Stauskas not only added a promising young talent to the roster but also actually addressed a need – something Hinkie has never considered a priority in his two-plus years here. 

This was progress, no question, for Hinkie and his team.

However, the transaction distracted the fans from the sobering message conveyed by the move. By absorbing the salaries of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson – a total of $13 million – Hinkie was compromising another season. His decision not to pursue significant free agents was further proof that he will not make a full effort to win in 2015-16.

Now, with Jahlil Okafur and Nerlens Noel on the front line and Stauskas posing a threat in the backcourt, the Sixers should easily surpass the 19 wins of two seasons ago and the 18 last year. The current roster is a 25 to 30-win team, at the very least. Bravo to that.

Hinkie deserves credit for making one of the best deals of the year – he also got a protected future first-round pick and the right to switch first-round draft positions twice with the Kings – and for using one of the assets he has been accumulating (cap space) during this torturous rebuilding plan.

What still needs to be addressed is how many more years he plans to acquire assets, how many more seasons fans will have to wait before Sam Hinkie actually tries to win. At last count, Hinkie has four extra first-round draft picks and 10 second-rounders, plus the most cap space in the NBA.

When is it our turn, Sam? Just tell us when.

And finally . . .

• Congratulations to the US women's national team and its captain, Carli Lloyd of Delran, N.J., for an amazing run to the World Cup. My dislike of soccer and apathy toward women’s sports is well known, but that team transcended even my narrow-mindedness with their brilliance under pressure.

• If Cesar Hernandez is not winning the starting job at second base with his play right now, then the Phillies are kidding themselves about their commitment to the future. Chase Utley is done. If he isn’t willing to walk away – or to take a back-up role – somebody is going to have to make that decision for him.

• The new spin on Ryne Sandberg’s abrupt exit from the Phillies is that he’s a quitter. I disagree. This horrendous ballclub is not worthy of the dignity and honor that Sandberg brings to the game. He made the right decision. No Hall of Famer should have to endure the ineptitude of GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

• It was great seeing Joel Embiid at the mini-camp last week, but it would be even better if the Sixers updated us on his damaged right foot. It has been three weeks since the team said he would be visiting an army of doctors to decide whether to have more surgery. By now, they know what the answer is. Why don’t we?

• Former Flyers captain Mike Richards was taken into custody last month after trying to take OxyContin across the Canadian border. The Los Angeles Kings immediately terminated the final five years (and $29 million) of his contract. Richards’ hockey career is over. He is 30 years old. Fame truly is fleeting.

• One of the most eloquent and independent voices in Philadelphia sports was silenced last week when CBS3 fired Beasley Reece. A few days after the abrupt move, the ex-sports director spoke with emotion about the bond he had created with the fans. There is no better person in our sports community than Beasley Reece.