Before the cast and crew of It’s Always Sunny descend upon me with scythes and boards with nails in them, let me state I wish John S. Middleton owned the Cubs. Or the White Sox, so my friends of that parish could stop hitting themselves in the head with wooden planks just to feel anything. Middleton has the perfect attitude for an owner, one we used to see far more often. All that seems to matter to him is winning, making the fans happy, and generally operating as a fan who just happened to land in the owner’s box (after help in business from his father and being in the tobacco industry, but we’ll leave that for now).
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With the Fightins on the verge of their second consecutive NLCS and favorites for their second straight World Series appearance, this quote from the beginning of spring training is making the rounds again:
It’s how you want every owner to feel. To not worry about another 5-10 percent in profit that they or their relatives would never actually notice to embrace the “flags fly forever” attitude that would bring joy and memories to thousands (and in the Phillies’ case probably millions) for a lifetime. Only a select few will remember how an owner or group squeezed a few extra million out of its team and city. Parades last in the annals for generations. Certainly fans in Baltimore or Cincinnati or Pittsburgh would love such an attitude from the top and there are at least a dozen more just in baseball who would feel the same way.
The problem, not for Middleton but the rest of us, is that a lot of his fellow owners aren’t going to look at the money he’s spent, the players Philly has signed, and see the path to playoff success. They’re just going to see the 90 wins from this year, or the 87 from last season, matched with the October hot streaks, and think that’s the path.
To be fair to Middleton’s charges this season, a lot went wrong. Had Trea Turner not struggled for the entire first half, or JT Realmuto not looked like the miles caught behind the plate are catching up, or Harper been healthy all season, or Aaron Nola not seemingly felt the effects of last year’s extended season, maybe they would have been within hailing distance of Atlanta all season. But it’s an older team, and these kinds of issues are more likely to crop up.
Still, all it took was one good week to basically erase all that and leave Eastern PA delirious while sending the Dirty South into an existential crisis, which is exactly how these expanded playoffs are designed.
Owners and front offices aren’t going to see that it takes spending $250 million or more to create a 90-win team that can get hot at the right time. Sure, having an array of stars like the Phillies makes it more likely the torch paper will be lit come the fall. The better players you have the more likely it is they’ll succeed, even if they wait until the last minute. That’s how the Astros basically do it, it’s just theirs came through their system for the most part.
But Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto gave away the game, the ethos of most of the league being to simply be a touch over .500 and let variance occasionally take you higher while it also takes you lower sometimes. Most GMs will feel they can put together an 87-90 win team far cheaper than the Phillies have, and then you get in, and anything can happen. Look at the Phillies’ opponent tomorrow night, Arizona, as an example.
It’s a shame because in the other league, Texas is doing basically the same thing as Philly. They brought in a bunch of free agents, and they’re in the ALCS because no one can get Cory Seager out, or Nathan Eovaldi found his May form, or Max Scherzer is pulling a Wills Reed now, though with a touch more internal development than Philly has (such as Evan Carter seeing the Matrix that is the strike zone). There is no such thing as “clutch” in baseball, but paying for good players means you have more of them more likely to break through in the biggest moments.
But for every Middleton or Ray Davis, there are three or four of an Angelos, Castellini, Ricketts, or Stanton who just see the path of least resistance to late-season excitement that’s been manufactured by the expanded playoffs and something of just a lottery ticket when you get there. No amount of money can ever completely counteract the randomness and variance of playoff baseball, and most aren’t even going to try.
Middleton very well may toddle off with the trophy this season, and he’ll have earned that right. But his cohorts more likely figure they’ll get their grubby paws on it by chance one day. Sadly, they’re probably right.
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