The firing of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro wasn't personal; it was just business. But that in itself is a radical change for the franchise.
For decades—forever, really—the Phillies have been a family business. There are scouts, ushers, executives and clubhouse guys who have jobs for life. Familial loyalty is part of the team’s charm, and it helps explains its long spells of futility, too. The Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Braves—even the Cubs—are modern, high-tech businesses. In Philadelphia, by tradition, personal trumps business, and not just at Citizens Bank Park. That’s why Ruben Amaro Jr.—native son, former team batboy and second-generation Phillies player—was not ousted as the team’s general manager until Thursday, roughly two years and a month after another team might have parted ways with him.
Amaro was the team’s assistant GM and GM during its greatest five-year run, when it won the NL East every season from 2007 to '11. And since then, the Phillies have been in a free-fall. Amaro, in conjunction with other executives, had made long-term and vastly expensive commitments to popular, aging stars, including first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. These commitments came, as such deals often do, at the expense of the organization’s farm system.
In the month after the 2013 All-Star break, the Phillies won just five games in one of the most dismal stretches of baseball ever seen by Philadelphia fans. That August, Amaro fired the team’s beloved manager, Charlie Manuel. The problem, of course, wasn’t that the manager suddenly was unable to manage, but that the players Amaro had provided him weren’t very good at baseball. As for Amaro, he was still a golden boy, even if the savviest of fans had turned against him. But the franchise's bosses had watched Ruben Amaro grow up. He was a son of Ruben Amaro Sr., an infielder for Philadelphia in the early 1960s. You can’t fire family, and the city was witnessing the team’s family-first mentality in action (and not for the first time). It’s an admirable trait, but not a realistic one. The Phillies had a front office that valued loyalty beyond the limits of what the modern win-now world will tolerate.
One of Amaro’s biggest moves was a miscalculation and a disaster, replacing Manuel with Ryne Sandberg, Cubbie icon and the Phillies’ third base coach. He is a solid man and a Hall of Fame player and is steeped in the game, of course. But Sandberg was also lacking in charisma, warmth and the intangibles that made Manuel so successful. The Phillies had gone from having a true players’ manager to having a knowledgeable, respected automaton at the helm, filling out a lineup card that lacked bat speed and base-path speed and overseeing a bullpen that was unreliable on its best nights.
The team went from bad to worse. By 2014, the '11 season was barely a foggy memory. (And that season was, really, a waste of last-stand excellence. The Phillies won 102 games and then said goodbye to October in the Division Series.) By this year, even in spring training, nobody was pretending. The Phillies were going to be bad, and everyone, even the GM, knew it.
They’ve been beyond bad this year, posting an MLB-worst 54–86 record. In August, there was a series of balmy nights at Citizens Bank Park where the home team was hopelessly out of the game by the sixth and the stands held not even 15,000 bored fans, no matter what the paid attendance was announced to be. The trend was unmistakable. Something had to give.
Manuel was fired on Aug. 16, 2013. Twenty-five months after Manuel's departure, the Phillies looked totally different. It wasn't just because Amaro had dealt three of the home-grown mainstays, sending Rollins to the Dodgers during the off-season and Utley there too last month, and lefthander Cole Hamels to the Rangers in July. It went beyond that. The changes were systemic. David Montgomery, who had been the team president, became chairman, a position without day-to-day run-the-team responsibilities. Bill Giles—for decades the most visible of the owners and who, like Montgomery, so prized loyalty—had become chairman emeritus.
Instead of Montgomery and Giles, ownership had a new public face: John Middleton, who had made a fortune (billions!) building up and selling his family’s cigar business. As the managing owner, with a 48% stake in the team, Middleton has shown that he is willing to invest lavishly on his team but it is equally clear that he sees the team (as he should!) not as a plaything but as an investment. Giles, like Amaro, is a second-generation baseball man; he is the son of former National League president Warren Giles. Montgomery is a Phillies lifer. Middleton has an MBA from Harvard and a different style and approach from those two. In fact, he has a different style and approach from what Phillies fans have seen for many generations now.
In late June, Middleton hired the veteran baseball executive Andy MacPhail, who will replace Pat Gillick as team president at the end of the season. It was MacPhail who announced on Thursday that Amaro’s contract would not be renewed. Middleton was present for the announcement.
For the Phillies, it was a new day. Under Giles or Montgomery—or the Carpenter family, in the 1970s and ‘80s—a GM like Amaro would have been given the opportunity to finish out the season. It would be a parting gift, and a more dignified exit, for a man who had worked hard, foolishly clashed with fans, and showed, in the tradition of his club, too much loyalty to the team’s aging stars. But that was then. That was the old Phillies. We are seeing the birth of a new club, and there will be growing pains.
Ruben Amaro Jr. knows what we all know: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.