Being a General Manager is a little bit like starting a level of Super Mario Bros. fully powered up. You have the fireballs, the raccoon tail–whatever you want. There are several layers of protection you have to peel through before you are ever in any real danger. The GM has the players, the coaches and ultimately the manager to pin the blame on before he no longer has an excuse for the owners. When Ruben Amaro took the job as the Phillies’ GM in 2009, he was uncommonly protected. Great team, huge payroll, he was invincible. It’s taken four years, but with the dismissal of Charlie Manuel on Friday, Ruben is out there on a limb just like small Mario. One more mistake–and it’s curtains. Right?
Charlie Manuel’s relationship with the fans of Philadelphia has always been in a state of flux. Through the first couple years, when Manuel tested the limits of his own job security, Charlie spent much of the time as a punchline. With a team that spent most of a twenty year stretch near the basement of the NL East, the Phillies were better in Manuel’s early years, but the expectations were still low. Sure, Charlie wasn’t a great strategist, but the team had made one playoff appearance in 25 years. How could that really be his fault? He was just another in a long line of uninspiring managers.
Then, 2007 happened. The year that changed the arc of Phillies history. They ran down the collapsing Mets. A dominant offense was born, and the fans starting coming to the ballpark by the millions. If the Phillies hadn’t caught the Mets, there’s a good chance Charlie could have been ushered out-of-town after that 2007 season. What would have happened over the next 3 years would be up for debate, but a hot September saved Charlie’s job and allowed him to go on to become the most successful manager in Phillies history and preside over the city’s 1st World Championship in a quarter-century.
By 2009, most fans had forgotten they ever had any distaste for Manuel and he was the lovable leader of the NL champs with his own T-Shirts, the fans chanted his name–things could not have been better. But, while the fans overlooked Charlie maybe (definitely?) getting out-managed in a few post-season series, the Phillies passed control of the team from Pat Gillick to Ruben Amaro, Jr. It was a move that hardly caused a ripple at the time. The team was a juggernaut. It would take a buffoon to mess things up–Ruben practically said so himself.
Then, he proceeded to mess things up–royally. In a move that belied his later loyalties to current Phillies Ruben set about to remedy the Phillies’ problems by acquiring a REAL ACE pitcher, because Cole Hamels wasn’t going to live up to 2008’s standard. This was phase one in turning a team of young mashers into a team built on “pitching and defense,” I’ve said it a hundred times, Ruben felt better pitching would have won in 2009, when that was a year that things simply didn’t break their way. Hamels and Lidge implode, the Yankees are a very good team, etc.
After this change in philosophy the Phillies validated Ruben with stellar regular season play. They went 41-14 after the All-Star Break in 2010. They won 102 games in 2011. Pitching and defense went from a philosophy to an obsession. At least the pitching part of the equation. Ruben’s quest for one true ace, turned into The FOUR ACES, all the while his aging core was allowed to erode, while he patched it together with another starting pitcher. Essentially offering a man dying of thirst a package of saltines.
Along with commitment to his philosophy, the inability to adapt has long defined Amaro’s tenure. There’s always been a failure to see the fine details. He doesn’t notice how a team loses a playoff series, because he’s blinded by 102 wins. He says and believes things like, “I don’t care about walks, I care about production,” because he’s stubborn and doesn’t know any better. How do you take a 102 win team and turn it into a 75 (70?) win team? You keep it together. If you rounded up the Big Red Machine in 1984 they would have been horsebleep. That’s what happens. Ruben still hasn’t figured that out. He’s still signing players that were in their prime five years ago.
Through this transition of leadership, Charlie has remained at the helm. He’s taken more and more criticism as the Phillies’ record have plummeted back to earth and he’s been unable or unwilling to protect some of his coaches as Ruben starts peeling away the layers of blame–Charlie himself being the last piece tossed away.
This brings me back to the fans’ relationship with Manuel. In his departure, there has been nothing but sympathy and warm feelings. Perhaps everyone has finally realized that Manuel is remarkably consistent as a manager. He’s the same guy who almost got fired after 2006, the same that won the World Series in 2008, and the same who captained this particularly hideous 25 game stretch that resulted in his ouster. The talent on the field has waxed and waned, but Charlie’s been the same. This year, this that everyone hopes will be rock bottom is hardly his fault.
But, a change had to be made. It’s one of those things in sports that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it had to be done. Perhaps it could have been done better, or with better timing, but there was no point in Manuel managing out the string. His time is up and the team appears to be cooked as well.
The other reason the firing is essential is because the Phillies will continue to be a bad team with Ryne Sandberg leading the way. They were jolted into a 3-hit shutout in his debut and will likely face Clayton Kershaw today with similar results. Bad teams lose and the Phillies are bad. It’s not the “voice.” Ryne Sandberg, who has been pining for a big league managerial job for years, might not know what he’s gotten himself into. He called the team lackadaisical without realizing that could be a reflection on the team’s coaches as well as its manager.
The change that will dislodge the Phillies from their current trajectory will not occur with a man wearing a uniform. One player, or a manager is not going to turn this thing around. The Phillies need a philosophical overhaul. Their GM, the guy who once preached pitching and defense has spent so much money that his only requirement left for signing supplemental players is– are they CHEAP?
It makes you wonder how a GM with this track record can be so safe in his job, even after he’s jettisoned players, coaches and a manager. The answer is likely that Ruben Amaro is the product of his organization. An organization that prides itself on loyalty and a keen awareness of the past. So, when evaluating Ruben the GM, the Phillies’ management probably looks at him the same way he looks at a player. What’s the best case scenario? How long has he been part of the Phillies family? Like Amaro sees 2008 Chase Utley, the managing partners of the Phillies see a GM who put together a 102-win team.
The Phillies only make the biggest and toughest decisions when they absolutely have to, and it’s usually too late. They fire Manuel to try to stave off an empty stadium for the team’s last twenty home dates. What will it take to rid themselves of Amaro? I’m sorry to say we don’t know the answer to that yet.