CD's Connect the Dots... Spin Control

Members... and ex-members of the Philadelphia Phillies organization were out in full force this week, less than 48 hours after the Phils completed a less than satisfying season with an admittedly strong finish. From Managing General Partner Dave Montgomery to pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, each had their own special take on why the Phils failed... and who was mainly to blame. From this view, it was Phillie spin control at its best and left yet another bitter taste in the mouths of Phillie fans.

The final weeks of the season were very good to the Phils. From a low point of 65-68, when it appeared the team would finish in fourth place, they rebounded in September to win 21 of their final 29 games to claim second place, once again with an 86-76 record. Yet, most baseball pundits weren't fooled by this surge, no doubt fueled by the knowledge that Manager Larry Bowa would be replaced at the end of the season.

It remains this writer's belief that the surge was no mirage, but rather a consorted effort by a group of players who finally established an identity after ten years of searching. I also believe that this identity will carry over into next season and if the correct manager is selected, the Phils, albeit a year late, will become the Beasts of the East.

Nevertheless, on whole, this season was a huge disappointment, and it didn't take long for a public relations conscious organization like the Phightins' to circle the wagons and attempt to deflect blame wherever possible. To review the timeline, Larry Bowa, after reading of his reported firing at the end of the season, asked for a meeting with General Manager Ed Wade on Saturday, October 2, a mere two days before the end of the season.

When confronted privately by Bowa about the rumors, Wade admitted that they were true and that Bowa was gone as soon as the season ended. In a move that seemed very self- serving and ill conceived, Bowa immediately resigned, thus leaving the very players he claimed to care so much about.

With Bowa gone, the rumors began in masse about the coming resignation of Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan effective on Monday, October 4. To his credit, Kerrigan stayed on board through the final game, as did all of Bowa's coaches. Stories also broke throughout Philadelphia that hitting coach Greg Gross and third base coach John Vukovich would also be fired.

Through it all, the Phils split their final two games with the Marlins, although admittedly with less than 100% enthusiasm for the tussles. Most were either non-committal or polite in their praise of Bowa, though it is significant that not one player called it a mistake.

The spin control began on Monday when Montgomery, who is among the least visible owners in baseball, agreed to go on local radio shows and give his take on the Phils season, and the firing of Bowa. While an admirable attempt to paint a rosy picture, it was obvious to most that Monty was trying to justify his continued faith in beleaguered GM Wade, while hoping to satisfy a still large contingent of Bowa fans.

Monty's effort seemed to only show how out of touch he is with baseball reality. When pressed about Wade's seeming inadequacies, he defended his GM by saying that the Phils are a much better team than they were seven years ago when Wade took office.

While on face value, this is true, the reality is that the 1997 Phils were the worst team in baseball, and it would have taken a massive negative Herculean effort to put together a team worse than the '97 Phils. In fact, a point worth making is that among Wade's gaffes was trading the two best players from that team, Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen and receiving precious little in return.

No one can question Montgomery's love for the Phils. As a lifetime fan, he no doubt longs for a return to the glory years of the 70's. But his almost blind loyalty to Wade is befuddling, and seems to have kept the team from capitalizing on what seemed a golden opportunity to win in 2004.

Blessed with a new stadium, new revenue streams and a talented team, the '04 Phils were primed for a playoff birth and possible World Series. Instead, the team started 1-6 and never really recovered from the abysmal opening week. Montgomery seems to believe it was injuries rather than the once again less than stellar mid-season efforts of Wade that kept the Phils from contending.

This view seems terribly short-sighted as Wade merely continued what has been a maddening habit of making mid-season trades that rarely help the team, and often hurt it. Solid general managers understand that it is rarely a good idea to wait until the last minute to make a deal, and that it occasionally takes more than two teams to make a deal.

For his part, Wade went on the campaign trail almost immediately to defend his moves, especially the Cory Lidle trade. In fact, the acquisition of Lidle will only have a chance to bare real fruit for the Phils if the team re-signs him at a reasonable cost. If Lidle uses his admittedly solid finish to reap a huge contract elsewhere, then once again the Phils will be left with nothing to show for the loss of solid minor league prospects Elizardo Ramirez, Javon Moran and Joe Wilson.

Most Phillie fans, who witnessed his outstanding stuff in a cameo role as relief pitcher back in May, already know Ramirez's pedigree. No less than the third top pitching prospect in the Phillie organization, "Easy" as he is called is probably less than two years from a major league birth.

As for Moran, he merely hit over .380 after the deal and thrilled the Reds organization with his speed and daring do. While it may be true that Moran was merely a carbon copy of the Phils other outstanding outfield speed prospect, Michael Bourn, it seems never a good idea to give talent away for a rent-a-player. If Lidle leaves, that will have been the result.

This trade merely refocuses attention of Wade's inability to make wise moves on the trade front. Among his transgressions is his utter disdain for ever acquiring young minor league talent in any of his moves. Wade is fond of saying that he likes to acquire "major league ready" players, but this philosophy has begun to strip the organization of some of its most prized jewels.

Under the Wade watch, in just the last two years the team has lost such young stalwarts as Johnny Estrada, Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, Taylor Buchholtz, Ezequiel Astacio, Brandon Duckworth, Anderson Machado, Josh Hancock, Alfredo Simon, Joe Wilson and the aforementioned Ramirez and Moran.

While it is true that these deals have brought in some solid major league talent like Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton, Billy Wagner, Frank Rodriguez and Todd Jones as well as Lidle, it is interesting to note that it is possible that all but Wagner may leave as free agents this off season.

From my perspective, this seems a terrible drain on the talent base of the organization, a talent base that Wade is paid handsomely to protect. What Wade has shown is an ability to spend money when it is given to him, as evidenced by the free agent signings of Jim Thome, David Bell and Tim Worrell.

However, even Montgomery admits the 93 million dollar budget will be cut by at least 5 million this off-season, and how Wade handles this dilemma will be challenging at the very least. It does seem that Wade has probably one more chance to get it right in 2005 or he may also join the unemployment line.

With this in mind, watch for Wade to try and sign a media friendly manager like Charlie Manuel or Grady Little, and attempt to trumpet every move he makes this off-season. Clearly, with Bowa gone, Wade has become the target of the Phillie fans disaffection and his moves will be closely scrutinized all year.

Perhaps no person was in greater spin control mode than Bowa, still loved by many for his heroics in 1980. The truth is that Larry Bowa has always been about Larry Bowa and his exit was very much in step with what we saw for four years. It is my opinion as someone who has watched this team for forty years that Bowa ranks with Bob Skinner and Nick Leyva as among the worst Phillie managers of the past half century.

Frankly, he should have been fired after that horrendous 1-9 homestand that featured six straight losses to San Francisco and Houston. Even a 5-5 stand would have thrust the Phils right into the middle of the playoff hunt, but Wade fiddled while Bowa burned and they both took the entire team with them in 2004.

Instead of silently walking off into the sunset with class and dignity, Bowa proved true to form with an outburst of the blame game, not so coincidentally mentioning an "unnamed" person in the Phillie front office as the reason for his demise.

This is absurd in its contention as the fact remains that Bowa had no one to blame but himself for his fall. Certainly, Philadelphia embraced Bowa and wanted nothing better than for him to be successful. In truth, this was a disaster waiting to happen, and Bowa actually showed his true colors early on in his first spring with the club.

While being miked for television, Bowa was heard to make a very derogatory remark about pitchers in general. His seeming disdain for pitchers as well as his inability to make proper use of his bullpen sealed his fate. Add to that, his mind games display with slugger Pat Burrell and his utter inability to take responsibility for his inadequacies ultimately cost him his job.

Yet Bowa left his "beloved" players two games before the end of the season and then claimed that he really believed it was injuries that proved the downfall of the 2004 Phils. This team did suffer many injuries, but Bowa seemed to manifest every one with comments meant to deflect blame from the true culprit… Bowa himself.

The adage addition by subtraction may never prove more prophetic than in the case of next year's Phils. The team will be better merely because Bowa will not be the manager. It says here that Bowa will never again manage at the big league level, though he will no doubt resurface somewhere as a coach, a job he is bettered suited for.

Finally, we saw former Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan offering his defense of his job performance, often at the very expense of players he claimed to admire. Few recent moves in Phillie history were more trumpeted than the hiring of Kerrigan as pitching coach prior to the 2003 season. He was widely hailed as one of the soundest minds available in the pitching coach fraternity and it did seem a match made in heaven.

Yet, almost from the start, he seemed to have difficulties with not only pitchers like Kevin Millwood, Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla but also catcher Mike Lieberthal as well. Stories of shouting matches between Kerrigan and his staff became almost legendary and when the story finally broke about his fight with reliever Tim Worrell in late April of this year, it suddenly became crystal clear that this was not a marriage that could work.

As with Bowa, Kerrigan could and should have just quietly walked away and let his record stand on its own. Instead, he chose to frequent the Philly television stations to offer "his" view of why it all went so terribly wrong. In listening to him talk, one came away with mixed signals.

While it should be said that Kerrigan appeared calm and thoughtful, it was also clear that he placed more than a little blame of the defensive weaknesses of catcher Lieberthal and the stubbornness of pitchers like Millwood and Myers. As with all of the suddenly restless souls that made up much of the Phillie brain trust, Kerrigan appeared a bit too self-serving in his analysis of what went wrong with this year's squad.

At last, the week is up, and now we can finally turn the page on this unsavory episode in spin control. The focus this week is where it should be, looking forward with hope and not backward with disgust. Managerial interviews are scheduled to begin on Tuesday and we will once again begin to hear of the strong talent base of the team.

Who will tell us this? None other than candidates like Don Baylor, Charlie Manuel and Grady Little, the first three of hopefully many candidates for the job. While we can trust that their comments will be filled with optimism, praise and hope for the team of 2005, it should serve Phillie fans well if they but remember the comments made this week by Monty, Wade, Bowa and Kerrigan.

For while Baylor and all will extol the virtues of the Phillie players this week, it is this very same players that may get blamed if all goes south in the future. Thus is the story of this organization, a group that plays the "spin control" game as well as any team in baseball.

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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