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September 18, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Is Phillies owner John Middleton willing to admit he's made a mistake?

During the course of their stewardship of a franchise, there’s going to come a time when an owner of a professional sports team has to step up and admit a mistake.

Jeff Lurie did that when he fired Chip Kelly one season after dispatching Howie Roseman to the other side of the NovaCare Complex.

Robert Kraft did it one year by firing Pete Carroll – who would eventually win a Super Bowl — away from the Patriots and hiring Bill Belichick.

Pat Croce took one look at Brad Greenberg and Johnny Davis and decided that was enough, turning the Sixers over to Larry Brown.

In that sense, the worst thing that an owner can have is stubbornness and pride. Money comes and goes, but reputations last forever.

And now, it is John Middleton’s turn to sit on that hot seat at a critical moment for the Phillies franchise.

Everyone has given their thoughts about what the Phillies' managing partner will do regarding his power trio of Andy MacPhail, Matt Klentak and Gabe Kapler. The trick is that nobody knows for certain since Middleton has been quiet since the end of spring training.

That’s why nothing can get ruled out. Yes, MacPhail and Klentak were given contract extensions in the heady excitement after the signing of Bryce Harper in spring training. The game, however, has changed.

During the past five months, all three have become poison pills to what Middleton has ultimately tried to achieve – a steady contender that allows people to return to the building on a regular basis.

Two weeks ago, Ken Rosenthal laid out on The Athletic’s website what was essentially an indictment of the approach the front office had at the trade deadline and this season. On the surface, there may not have been anything there that Phillies fans didn’t already know and feel already. For a national audience, it was an eye opener in a negative way.

And one thing we can say about sports owners over the years: they don’t like negative national eye openers. Nobody wants to open up the web browser and hear how much you have bombed as a group.

You may say that managers and executives don’t sell tickets and you would be correct. However, manager and executives that tick off fan bases help prevent tickets from being sold. And the apathy that now engulfs the Phillies franchise. Forget the fact that the team had empty seats available last week and that a quick glimpse on the secondary market had tickets available at a severe markdown. Now, try to sell that forward to a season ticket base this winter that was a little bit artificially pumped when Harper threw his name on the dotted line. So yes, economics may play a factor in the decision moving forward because this power structure — with a slumping minor league system and mediocre returns at the MLB level — has seemed to turn its fan base off.

While Klentak had a great off-season with the acquisitions of J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen, his decision to stick with Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta as rotation pieces ultimately were the fatal flaw of this franchise’s turnaround season. His belief in the health of David Robertson was understandable — after all, Robertson was never an injury risk before this season. The idea that somehow Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter would go through unscathed, however, was curious to say the least as well.

MacPhail only appears to speak a few times a year in his role as team president. It is strange that every time he has done it, it seems that he’s said something which has completely alienated the fan base. Nothing is more obvious than the “If we don’t, we don’t” comment in July.

In a year when the Phillies honored David Montgomery’s tenure as team president, it is important to know that Montgomery — while patient at times and loyal at all — was never dismissive of how his fan base was feeling. Growing up here gave him a good sense on how that worked. MacPhail’s comments were — at the very least — tone deaf.

The conventional wisdom is that Kapler — who has been a lightning rod of controversy since his first game last year — is the most likely of the trio to get shown the door in the off-season by Middleton and company. Kapler is entering the final year of his contract, has never shown the ability to manage a bullpen, seems to have never really connected with his locker room, makes incredibly strange lineup decisions on a daily basis and just is the wrong fit for this town with his “Up With People” act in a real-talk city.

It is not Gabe Kapler’s fault that he was hired as Phillies manager. In the end, it is a mistake in judgment by the powers that be which decided to make the call. And that would be MacPhail and Klentak.

So this brings us back to the main question: will John Middleton see things in this light? If he goes in the direction of bringing the whole crew back, that “man of the people” persona that has followed him since the “I want the damn trophy back” comment at the end of the 2009 World Series will take a big hit. It may take a bloodletting to keep that reputation in place, and that’s going to basically be admitting a mistake.

The question is, will Middleton do that? Others have and it has paid off in championships and finals appearances.

Until he speaks, there is no guarantee either way of how this is going to go.