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September 29, 2017

Why did the Phillies fire Mackanin as manager 20 weeks after second contract extension in 15 months?

The Phillies were about a month into their 2017 season when a press conference was announced on a Thursday afternoon – an off day on the team’s schedule – that was almost celebratory with handshakes all around.

“Next year will be my 50th year in professional baseball,” Pete Mackanin said that day. “And with this contract, I will have spent more time with this organization than any other organization I’ve been associated with, so it means a lot to me.”

For the second time in 15 months, Matt Klentak awarded manager Pete Mackanin with a contract extension. Mackanin, who had taken over for Ryne Sandberg in June of 2015, would return to his post in 2018.

Mackanin, Klentak said, had “clearly solidified himself as the leader” of the club and the general manager said he felt “absolutely” comfortable with the manager being the man in the dugout when the Phillies’ rebuild transitioned into a team ready to contend.

“Pete is the manager,” Klentak said on May 11. “And there is no timeframe on that, this is not a temporary thing. Pete’s the manager. And I have every hope and every confidence that he will be as we turn this around and the wins start coming that he is going to be right here.”

But Klentak wasn’t finished.

“I think the effort level of this team – we can see progress in what’s happening right now,” he said. “Pete can see it, we all can see it’s happening before our very eyes. Obviously, it’s not reflected in our win-loss record yet, but we can see the progress happening. And that’s why we’re making this decision, the team is playing very well for this man to my left.”

One hundred and forty-one days later (or, 10 weeks and one day, if you prefer), another press conference was called prior to the third-to-last game of the 2017 Phillies season. The team was still playing well for the man to Klentak’s left (they’re two games under .500 since the All-Star break, and 38-44 since Nick Williams was promoted to basically take the place of the Michael Saunders Experience) but something had changed in the second-year general manager’s brain.

The man he had committed to four months earlier was no longer the man he felt comfortable with ushering in a team possibly capable of contending in 2018.

The Phillies announced on Friday that Mackanin would “have a new role with the Phillies” next season and that he “would not be retained as manager” following the conclusion of the 2017 season. But these were fancy public relations words.

Mackanin was fired. And like just about every other man who has managed the team or worked as a general manager for the team in the last 40 years, except immediately and not after a year or three, he was offered a “special assistant” role in the front office.

Mackanin played the part well on Friday afternoon, and he probably was genuinely happy he’d have a job in some form in 2018 (“and beyond,” according to the press release), but his acting skills weren’t that great.

“I was a little surprised,” Mackanin said of the news that came a day earlier in a private meeting with Klentak, on another Thursday off day on the team’s schedule. “But there are a lot of things in this business that are surprising. I’m good with it. Let’s put it that way. I’m disappointed surely. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m all tickled pink about it. But I understand it and I’m happy to be a part of it down the road.”

Mackanin spoke these words in the press conference, where he had to wear the public face. Inside his office about a half hour or so earlier, it didn’t sound like he understood it.

And he definitely didn’t want to go psychoanalyzing it, either.

“I swear to God, I've had to fire coaches, I've had to release players, and I don't want them to ask me why because it's tough to answer why,” Mackanin said. “Unless you're the hitting coach and every time I've looked down there in the cage you were sleeping. Something like that is obvious. But to be perfectly honest, if you wanted to make the change and not bring me back, I don't care why. I don't care. I really don’t."

I’m sure Mackanin’s wife cares. And the rest of his family. And surely on some level, the 30-some players in the home clubhouse that enjoyed their daily interaction with Mackanin, his honesty, his way of manipulating a crowded roster in the last six weeks and attempting to keep everyone abreast of the situation if not thrilled with less playing time.

“I was just kind of like ‘Wow,’” veteran catcher Cameron Rupp said. “It’s not something that you ever expect or know when something like that is coming. … We’ve played really good baseball in the second half. We’ve had good pitching, offense has been there, and we’re in the top in baseball in offense the last couple months. It’s not something you expect.”

Perhaps it was as simple as Klentak taking care of business in May as a way of keeping order in the clubhouse for the entirety of the 2017 season (there’s the line of thinking that a lame duck manager can’t yield much power over players without an extension). Or maybe Klentak, about to complete his second full major league season as a general manager, has decided this is his team, too, and that his future in this industry will be decided, in part, on whether or not he succeeds in his first GM job, and if that’s the case, he wants his guy in the dugout, and not a man who has admittedly “turned into a very good friend” but also one he inherited from the previous regime.

Because that’s the best you can do: use your well-worn brain after 159 games of Phillies baseball to speculate. Klentak’s repeated attempts to explain the move were akin to a politician filibustering to avoid the topic.

“In my mind, we have reached a turning point in this rebuild,” Klentak explained. “As you all know, we have turned over this roster considerably over the last two years and especially in the last few months. We see our roster right now is littered with young players who look to have a very, very bright future. It’s time to look forward. That’s the message today: it’s time to look forward.”

OK, but why are you firing the manager you had “every confidence” in four months ago?

“We’re not firing him,” Klentak said. “We’re transitioning him into a new role. I think when we extended Pete in May – and I’m on record as talking about it at the time – I think it was important at that juncture to demonstrate the stability in the organization and, as a credit to Pete and the group, we did get things on track. But I think as the season has gone on and as we have turned the roster over and as the young players have shown up here in Philadelphia, and we’ve seen some of that progress, we have reached the critical phase I alluded to earlier. I think it is time for us to turn the page and start looking forward to the future.”

And with that, the man to his left walked down the same hallway Charlie Manuel had just four years ago, except in place of a Wawa bag he had a lineup card in hand, ready to complete the job he was hired to do and manage the first of the last three games remaining on the Phillies schedule in 2017.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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