April 24, 2017
John Middleton has been a man of mystery in Philadelphia sports, a wildly successful businessman who carries the loudest voice in the Phillies organization, but has rarely chosen to use it in public.
In fact, since he became the face of the team’s ownership in 2014, Middleton has limited his comments to major news conferences and rare interviews with Comcast Sportsnet and Philadelphia Magazine. No one had ever heard him articulate, in depth, his plans until he appeared last week on my WIP radio show.
The impression he left after an hour of spirited conversation was of an owner who is much like the fans themselves, driven to win and emotional about the journey. He is also a study in stunning contrasts.
For example, he is 62, but looks 20 years younger. He is a billionaire, but carries none of the elitism that plagues the public image of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. He is driven to win, but doesn’t unilaterally impose his will on subordinates. He is a lifelong baseball fan, but a relative novice at overseeing a sports franchise.
The single most surprising moment in our conversation was Middleton’s embrace of the theory that he is a modern-day George Steinbrenner, minus the bluster. He glowed when I brought up the comparison, noting the seven championship rings the late Yankees owner achieved.
With Middleton, it really is all about the winning. Unlike Sixers owner Joshua Harris, the Phillies are not a business – at least not only a business. Middleton made $3 billion when he sold his cigar company in 2006, but he doesn’t consider his bankbook a scoreboard.
At the end of the hour, I played Harry Kalas’ iconic call of the last pitch of 2008, and Middleton practically jumped out of his seat while describing his joy. When I mentioned the World Series loss to the Yankees the very next year, he acknowledged snapping at Ryan Howard: “I want my damn trophy back!”
Of all the topics he covered, the most encouraging was his attitude about the immediate future, when his compulsion to win will require an enormous commitment in money – especially in the 2018 free-agent market, when several superstars should be available.
Middleton left no doubt that he (and his partners) would welcome historic contracts ($400 million for Bryce Harper?) if those deals put the Phillies back into championship contention. His overriding theme was that all major expenditures must face that one question: Can this move get the Phillies back to the World Series?
If there is one concern about Middleton’s outlook, it is his blind loyalty to the men he has hired to execute the plan, president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak. The owner described MacPhail as the proven executive with the know-how to win and Klentak as the analytics wizard who will chart the path.
I have doubts about both. MacPhail has been conspicuous only by his absence since he took over two years ago, and Klentak is totally unproven. As someone who grew his father’s cigar business by finding the right executives to execute his plan, Middleton may be naïve about the same blueprint working in baseball.
And that leads to Middleton’s best moment in the interview, when he called the “trust-the-process” credo of the Sixers and Flyers “pablum” and made it abundantly clear nothing less than another parade, as soon as possible, will satisfy him.
“I don’t know how many people you have listening right now, Angelo, but this is a message for them,” he said. “I’m intent on winning. We’re going to get that trophy back somehow, or I’m going to die trying.”
Despite the current four-game winning streak, Pete Mackanin made a huge mistake last week, and it could ultimately cost him his job. The Phillies manager looked the other way after Freddy Galvis got caught not hustling on a dropped pop-up, costing the Phillies a run, and nearly the game.
Mackanin explained, to the satisfaction of no one, that Galvis was usually such a good role model for his teammates that it would be counter-productive to punish him for his mistake. The manager said he wasn’t worried at all that other Phillies would take liberties now that one of the team leaders did.
Two days later, Maikel Franco proved how wrong that kind of thinking was when the third baseman barely moved out of the batter’s box after crushing a ball to left-center. Only a desperate slide saved Franco of the embarrassment of failing to make second base on a sure double.
Larry Andersen, the relentlessly honest radio color analyst, launched into a diatribe right after the play, at one point screaming: “What the heck is going on here?”
Mackanin waited most of his baseball career for a chance to manage a big-league ball club, and he has conducted himself with dignity in his year-plus leading the Phillies. But he has been talking a better game than playing one lately with his lax approach to player discipline.
After the Galvis blunder, managing partner John Middleton revealed that he fired off emails to president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak seeking an explanation for the manager’s lack of action. Middleton said he was satisfied with the response, and he remains a fan of Mackanin.
But he didn’t look all that satisfied to me, leading to speculation that the team’s upper management is not certain about the manager’s status beyond this season. There’s a reason why Mackanin has been forced to manage in his lame-duck contract year, something most teams try to avoid.
Pete Mackanin has been one of the Phillies’ most honest and fair-minded managers, but he should learn something from the Galvis fiasco last week. If he doesn’t get tougher with his players, he’s going to be looking for a job after the season.
Howie Roseman faces his biggest test as a personnel guru later this week, when he needs to prove, once and for all, that he isn’t Howie Roseman any more.
Roseman 1.0 was not good at the NFL draft, which will be held Thursday through Saturday right here in Philadelphia. Roseman fell in love too easily with lousy players (Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett) or panicked under pressure (Marcus Smith). The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game in nine years because of those failures.
Since Chip Kelly’s one-year debacle as GM, Roseman 2.0 has been far more successful, especially with his slick maneuvering that brought quarterback Carson Wentz here, sent Sam Bradford to Minnesota and added some promising young talent (Wendell Smallwood, Isaac Seumalu and Jalen Mills) to the roster.
Now comes his biggest test. Will he defer to his new personnel guy, Joe Douglas – who has a far better draft resume than Roseman – or will he revert to his early form and go for the glitzy pick? In that war room, will Roseman exert his final say, or will he hand over the power to Douglas?
Here’s some unsolicited advice to Roseman and his staff:
• Take the best cornerback in the first round. Somebody is going to have to cover Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. It might as well be the best pass-coverage guy available.
• Don’t waste a high pick on a running back. Unless he’s the next Ezekiel Elliot, the risk is too great. As a rule, running backs wear out fast and are hard to project in the NFL.
• Avoid the character-issue players, especially Joe Mixon of Oklahoma. Anybody who slugs a young woman in the face should not play for the Eagles, regardless of his talent.
If Roseman can put together another draft like his most recent one, along with his outstanding recent free-agent spending spree, it may actually be time to say he learned from his mistakes and could lead the Eagles to another Super-Bowl run.
If not, well, he could always move back to his office on the other side of the NovaCare Complex.
And finally . . . .
• The Eagles didn’t get hosed as badly with the 2017 schedule as they did a year before, but starting with two tough road games and enduring a three-game road trip in December is no bargain. Hey, at least the Birds will play no teams coming off a bye week this time. Last year, they had five. Right now, I can find nine wins there, maybe even 10.
• In case you’re not keeping track, Mike Trout ‘s extraordinary talents are being wasted again this season on a 8-12 Angels team. The Millville, N.J. superstar has five homers, 14 RBIs and is batting .351. Anaheim has no big stars in the pipeline. He is doomed to a losing situation for the foreseeable future unless someone – hopefully, the Phillies – makes a trade proposal the Angels cannot refuse.
• Flyers goaltending prospect Carter Hart actually said last week: “Philly believes in a slow build” while referring to the process of developing a winning roster. The 18 year old grew up in Alberta, Canada, and played in Washington State, so I’ll give him a pass this time. But he should know now that Philadelphia does not believe in a slow build. Philadelphia always wants to win now. Philadelphia fans are impatient. Got it, kid?
• Great news about Robert Covington. The Sixers forward had only a tiny tear in his meniscus, and it was repaired without complication last week. Of course, the exact same thing was said one year ago about Jahlil Okafor, and he’s still experiencing pain in the same knee. The Sixers aren’t lying about Covington, are they? Let’s just say when it comes to Sixer injuries, it’s a good idea to bring along a grain of salt.
• One of the interesting revelations Phillies managing partner John Middleton made last week was that he is a regular dining companion of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. Hmmm. Middleton is worth $3 billion, Lurie around $2 billion. Wouldn’t you love to know who’s picking up the check?