Phillies’ downward spiral highlights cracks of riding success

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This is about the Philadelphia Phillies, but let’s start with the Chiefs. I have always been fascinated by the Kansas City Chiefs of the 1970s. You probably know that the Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were among the best teams in football. They played in Super Bowl I, and they won Super Bowl IV. In 1971, they went 10-3-1 and lost the game I believe was the greatest ever played — a 27-24 playoff overtime loss to Miami on Christmas Day. For most of those incredible years, they featured SEVEN Hall of Famers: Quarterback Len Dawson, dominant defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, brilliant linebackers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, cornerback Emmitt Thomas and kicker Jan Stenerud. I have long believed receiver Otis Taylor also should be in the Hall of Fame. Their coach, Hank Stram, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. We are talking about an all-time team.

But as the 1970s progressed, the players got old. And the Chiefs just, well, they just watched the players get old. The year after the Christmas Day game, the Chiefs went 8-6 with 37-year-old Len Dawson at quarterback and aging players everywhere. In 1973, they were 7-5-2 with the same aging players — they still had enough class to hold their own but not enough youth or energy or exuberance to more than hold their own. In 1974, the Chiefs imploded. They went 5-9 with most of the same players, Hank Stram was shoved out, and the Chiefs would have losing records for 12 of the next 15 years, making the playoffs only once, and becoming such a non-factor that there was serious talk of moving the team out of town.

This comes to mind because in 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies had to make a decision. The Phillies were an amazing team. They had won the World Series in 2008, lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009 and lost in NLCS to San Francisco in 2010. They were on a spectacular high, and the city was alive with baseball, and the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was fantastic, and the core of players — Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and so on — were Philadelphia icons. It was a magical time.

But you know — you could see the cracks. They weren’t hard to see. I have little doubt that general manager Ruben Amaro — for all the heat he has taken in Philadelphia lately — saw the cracks. Look:

  • Howard had turned 30, he’s the type of player who doesn’t age well, and his production had dropped significantly.
  • Utley had turned 31, he missed about 50 games with injury, his power numbers had dwindled.
  • Rollins had turned 31 and his offensive production was way down from his MVP season.
  • Victorino was about to turn 30.
  • Werth, coming off a career year, was a free agent and about to leave.

These were impossible to miss signs. And Amaro, manager Charlie Manuel, ownership, the fans of Philadelphia, everybody had a decision to make: What do you do? Do you break things up now, when things are so good? Do you begin the process of rebuilding when the team is at its height? OR do you double down, add a few big money pieces, hold on tight and hope that the ride will last for a while longer? It’s one of the great questions in sports.

The Phillies, as we know, did not just double down. They tripled down. They quadrupled down. They signed Ryan Howard to a huge extension that would not even kick in for two years, an extension that made absolutely no sense when it was signed and made progressively less sense every single day that passed. But they were committed. Utley was already signed. Rollins was already signed. They signed Cliff Lee to a huge contract, thus securing what many of us called the greatest four-man rotation of the generation — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They brought back everybody except Werth — eventually replacing him with Hunter Pence — which meant that their starting team had nothing but 30-somethings. No player under 30 got 300 at-bats for the 2011 Phillies.

And … they were awesome. The pitching staff was so absurdly good, it almost didn’t matter how many runs they scored. Halladay finished second in the Cy Young voting. Lee finished third. Hamels finished fifth. In games when the Phillies scored three or more runs, the 2011 Phillies won EIGHTY PERCENT of the time. That made up 90 of their 102 wins. Yes, the team finished seventh in runs scored. Yes, Utley got hurt again, and Howard’s decline continued, but the season was glorious. Well, the regular season. Then it was the playoffs, and the Phillies lost to the Cardinals in five games — losing the last game 1-0 when Chris Carpenter out dueled Roy Halladay. Howard also got hurt running to first. And it was the beginning of the end.

Amaro had to see this. Manuel had to see this. But what was there to do? The Phillies had to double down again — they were too far in to fold now. They signed Jim Thome. They signed Jonathan Papelbon. They signed Juan Pierre. They signed Chad Qualls. At this point, it was like Amaro was jamming his fingers underneath the window, trying to keep it from closing. There was some vague talk about getting younger — start prospect Dom Brown was about ready, young Vance Worley had shown some moxie as a 23-year-old pitcher, but that was basically window dressing. They were old (or “experienced”). They were declining (or “accomplished”). Amaro knew all about the holes in the boat. He believed it had enough strength and experience to make it to shore one more time. He really had no choice but to believe it. He had made his bet.

The boat didn’t make it to shore. Halladay collapsed. Howard caved in. Utley got hurt again. Victorino at 31 wasn’t the same player. Like those early 1970s Chiefs, the team had enough class to break even — they finished 81-81. But the ride was over. This year, the Phillies came in as a bloated and ancient team of the past. They have tried to get younger. The lineup now has players in their 20s, the rotation too. But the team is 15-games under .500, in fourth place, and manager Charlie Manuel was fired.

Manuel talked with CSN Philly’s Leslie Gudel and in his folksy way said that he knew the Phillies were doomed the last two years and seemed to blame the Phillies for not adding pieces. I can’t blame him for feeling that way — I mean the guy just got fired and I’m sure he’s hurting — but I kind of think he’s talking out of pain. I suspect he believed. I think they all believed. That’s the human equation. The Phillies could have played it differently when they were the best team in the National League. They could have gotten rid of Howard, traded Utley or Rollins or both, gotten a lot younger, not signed all those old players to patch the holes, taken a step or two back in order to take a step or two forward (and heard the screams and boos that come with such maneuvers). They chose to ride it out. It was the human thing to do. And it led to where it always leads.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

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There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.