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October 10, 2019

Paul Hagen: In firing Gabe Kapler, John Middleton makes it clear who runs the Phillies

And why the organization would be wise to take a lesson from George Steinbrenner and the Yankees...

Well, zugzwang.

After days of contemplation stretched to weeks stretched to months, Phillies managing partner John Middleton finally handed down his verdict Thursday: manager Gabe Kapler, gone after two unique seasons.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising call. This outcome has been telegraphed for awhile now. What’s more fascinating is the way Middleton worked to extricate himself from the almost unwinnable situation he’d maneuvered himself into.

In chess, zugzwang refers to a situation where a player has only bad options remaining on the board. (It’s also the title of an episode of the excellent AMC show Lodge 49, but we’ll leave that to the television critics.) Anyway...

Fire Kapler and he’s undermined his general manager, Matt Klentak, who publicly supported retaining the nontraditional skipper. Keep him and, given the length of the Hamlet-like deliberations over his fate, Kapler would have gone into next season haunted by the impression that he was only a two-game losing streak away from being sacked.

The only thing that’s obvious as the Phillies now belatedly turn their attention to the rest of their offseason is that, for better or worse, this is John Middleton’s team now.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is, literally, his team. The best reporting we have is that he personally owns 48 percent and that Jim and Peter Buck, who own the vast majority of the rest, have designated Middleton to steer this ship.

This isn’t the first time he’s exercised that power, either. It’s generally accepted that giving Jake Arrieta a three-year, $75 million contract in March, 2018 was his call. He took an active role in the recruitment of Bryce Harper, but any owner is going to be heavily involved when $330 million is being spent.

We don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes, of course, but the Rubicon may have been crossed when Middleton personally directed the firing of hitting coach John Mallee in mid-August and the selection of former manager Charlie Manuel as his replacement. That moment looms large for two reasons.

First, it’s unusual for a person so high on an organization’s food chain to dictate hirings and firings at that level.

And, second, it seemed to signal an abrupt shift in approach. A month earlier, after the All-Star break, in a scrum with reporters, team president Andy MacPhail messaged that even if the Phillies failed to make the playoffs this season, he was satisfied that progress was being made. When Mallee was let go, Klentak had to step forward and say it was done because the front office hadn’t given up on the season. Dissonance ensued.

Again, it’s John Middleton’s team. He can do whatever he wants with it. And, in a way, he’s every fan’s dream. Nobody doubts that he wants to win more than anyone, that he’s committed to bringing the trophy back to Philadelphia, that he’s willing to back that up with huge stacks of Benjamins.

As always, though, the devil is in the details. Wanting to win is easy. Figuring out how to accomplish that is a whole different challenge.

I’ll always remember a scene from the 2000 winter meetings in Dallas. It was the morning after Rangers owner Tom Hicks had personally engineered the signing of free agent superstar Alex Rodriguez. In a nearly empty conference room, general manager Doug Melvin and assistant GM Dan O’Brien Jr. stared glumly at each other.

Instead of being thrilled with the new acquisition, they both instinctively understood what it meant. That the money that could have been spent to address roster needs had gone to A-Rod instead. That the team would lose and they’d be fired. And that’s exactly how it all played out.

Once an owner inserts himself into the day-to-day decision-making process, things get complicated in a hurry. What is MacPhail’s role? How much responsibility should Klentak shoulder if a portion of the decisions that impact wins and losses weren’t his? The ripple effect of all that happened Thursday goes far beyond who stands on the top step of the dugout.

Years ago, before Middleton figuratively stepped from behind the curtain to take a more public role, shortstop Jimmy Rollins referred to him as “George Steinbrenner South.” It was meant as a compliment, a nod to the late Yankees owner, The Boss, whose will to win was legendary.

Steinbrenner had some early success in the Bronx. His signing of Reggie Jackson helped create one of the signature chapters in the history of that legendary franchise.

Then the Yankees began to flounder. Steinbrenner still spent a lot of money, but not always wisely. He fired managers seemingly on a whim. The soap opera elements of the organization played out on the back page of the tabloids. In July, 1990 he was suspended for paying a small-time gambler to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield. The Yankees ended up last that season, their fourth straight second-division.

But with Steinbrenner unable to participate in management, led by baseball man Gene Michael, the Yankees turned it around. After reinstatement, Steinbrenner largely deferred to his baseball people. The team made it back to the postseason in 1995 after a 12-year absence ... and have returned 21 out of 25 years since.

There’s a lesson in there for the Phillies. Clear lines of authority matter. Accountability and responsibility matter.

Otherwise, zugzwang.

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