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October 12, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Nothing about Phillies press conference showed 'organization working in harmony'

At one point during a 10-minute answer about whether he had just effectively neutered his general manager and team president by overruling their wishes for a third time this year, John Middleton defended the process by turning the Phillies into a brick and mortar business comparison.

“What happened here happens every day in businesses. It has happened repeatedly in my 40 years,” Middleton said. “If you talk to the people who ran the companies and reported to me over those 30 or 40 years, they will tell you, ‘John steps in with us and he says, ‘No you can’t do that, you’re going to do this instead. I’ve listened to you, but you haven’t convinced me and you do that.’ There is lots of talk about how that emasculates people, but that’s nonsense. That doesn’t do anything like that. This happens all the time and in fact it’s a learning experience.”

But real life is not sports management. People who work in sports as general manager and presidents usually work with a certain level of autonomy because it is understood that if it fails, they are gone. And it is not often when an owner steps into a professional sports franchise and imposes his will on the people who work under him in such a public manner.

At the same time Middleton was talking, general manager Matt Klentak was sitting roughly 14 inches to Middleton’s right with an expression that resembled a dog that had been to the vet and was wearing the “Cone of Shame” after a session of Bob Barker-endorsed surgery.

There’s not much else that anyone could read into Friday’s 58-minute public relations nightmare except this: for all the talk of “collaborative process” that came from that table, the only voice that matters on major issues with the franchise — including high priced personnel — is John Middleton.

Think that’s an exaggeration?

“We get paid to ensure our organization is meeting its strategical objectives,” Middleton said. “Signing Bryce Harper, there's a direct link to that and attaining a strategic objective of winning a World Series. Signing a relief pitcher for one year and $2 million, doesn't have the same impact. I'm not touching that decision. I don't even think I want to know about that decision, frankly. And I’m certainly not going to have input into that decision. So yeah, the big decision is exactly where CEO's have to be. Those are the decisions that make a difference and that's what I get paid to figure out.”

In other words, Middleton makes the moves with bling, Klentak does the grunt work of lowly middle relievers and team president Andy MacPhail is in charge of…. well…. let’s get back to you on that one.

Middleton has taken the advice of his management team of Klentak and MacPhail on three major cases in the last 10 months — the signing of Bryce Harper instead of perceived front office preference Manny Machado, the firing of hitting coach John Mallee and this week’s dismissal of manager Gabe Kapler — and went the other way.

Oh, there were attempts to make it sound like this wasn’t a one-person whim. “This was not John going above everybody's head and coming in with an iron fist — it really wasn't,” Klentak said. They didn’t work when the next words coming out of Middleton’s mouth made it clear that when there’s an impasse “the CEO not only has the authority to step in, the CEO has the responsibility and the obligation to step in.”

It’s not that any of the decisions are unjustified or wrong on the surface. It is the idea that making the contrary decision on three high profile positions to the recommendations of the people you hired as specialist probably means you should have different people in place to help you make those decisions.

It’s one thing to clash and get feedback. It’s another to publicly strip them down like what happened on Friday, whether it was intentional or not.

In a sense, Klentak became a sympathetic figure on that dais to anyone who has work in business and felt like their boss didn’t give a damn about what they said. It didn’t make him a good general manager. It didn’t mean he shouldn’t have been swept out with Kapler. But it did peak behind the curtain to the conditions that he must be working under with an impulsive owner.

Passion is a great thing and there’s no doubt that John Middleton has that in bucket loads. In that sense, Phillies fans are lucky because there’s no doubt that the guy wants to win. But wanting to win and knowing when to get out of the way to do it can be two very different things.

The main concern could be coming, in how others in the baseball community perceive Middleton. Baseball people love passion and love owners who spare no expense to win. They hate owners who think they know what they are talking about and have no earthly idea and don’t listen to the people they hired to know that topic. They want stability and respect. Nothing about Friday said this was an organization working in harmony. The way that Klentak and MacPhail were forced to sit there and get blistered for almost an hour many would have found disrespectful, even if they kept their jobs.

John Middleton was right on Friday: he has been a great CEO for a lot of companies and made a lot of money. But that was in the business world. The sports world is completely different. And John Middleton will only become a great CEO in that world when he understands the line of separation that has to exist between the product on the field and the suite level.