Squeeze Play
Can the Philadelphia Phillies build a winning team the old-fashioned way? David Montgomery is betting the franchise on it.

By Samuel Hughes

The game is on the line, and Curt Schilling is tying his shoes. Fidgets spread through Veterans Stadium. Though the Phillies are ahead 3-2 in the top of the sixth, their barrelchested ace has had a rare spell of wildness, giving up a walk, a single and another walk to load the bases with Los Angeles Dodgers. There are no outs. The count is 3-0 to Dodger catcher Todd Hundley as Schilling kneels on the mound to slow the game’s suddenly pounding pulse.
From my seat high in the 700 level, I am imagining David Montgomery C’68 WG’70, the Phils’ president and CEO, watching intently from his seat by the telephone in the executive box. Having caught a game there with him a few nights before, I know he’s a pretty even-keeled guy, but I can’t help projecting here, because if I were him I’d be chewing on the phone cord. It’s only the first week in May, and his team is only one game below .500, but they’ve lost four in a row, and after 11 losing seasons in the past 12 years, their once-robust fan base is looking downright anorexic. The Phils are still reeling from the announcement that their new closer, Jeff Brantley, who had pitched brilliantly in the opening weeks, is likely to miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, and every other pitcher not named Curt Schilling has a big, invisible question mark on the back of his uniform. And in area bars and sports pages, the Phillies’ management has been savaged for not signing at least one high-priced, free-agent pitcher.
Like, say, Kevin Brown, who happens to be pitching for the Dodgers this afternoon. His evil slider helped the Florida Marlins win the World Championship in 1997 and the San Diego Padres win the National League pennant in 1998, and when his contract with the Padres expired over the winter, normally steely-eyed executives fell all over themselves trying to win his favor. Eventually, he signed a seven-year contract worth $105 million with the Dodgers, who are now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group. The Phillies are owned by a group of investors whose pockets have bottoms, and it is fair to assume that if the team drops this one, more than one sportswriter and more than a few fans will again compare their relatively low major-league payroll ($26-$31 million, depending on your accounting method) to that of the Dodgers (somewhere around $79 million) and draw the seemingly obvious conclusion that the Phillies are too cheap or poor or staid to win.
But when Schilling stands up and peers in for the sign from catcher Mike Lieberthal, something happens. The restless crowd of 34,608–roughly twice the year’s average, thanks largely to today’s marquee pitching matchup–begins to cheer: some yells and rhythmic clapping at first, then a roar as Schilling throws a strike, then louder clapping and louder roars as he pours it on, firing strikes now, and punches out first Hundley on a split-finger fastball and then Todd Hollandsworth on a 93-mile-an-hour heater. And when he gets Adrian Beltre on a hard grounder to second-baseman Marlon Anderson, the stadium explodes. Even my six-year-old son, absorbed in his free Phillie Phanatic beanie baby, claps and yells. The momentum swings back to the red pinstripes. The Phils go on to win 12-3. The large crowd leaves happy. Kevin Brown does not.
So, I ask Montgomery later: What was going through your mind then? I mean, that was a crucial moment, right? Kind of a must-win game, with Brantley out and the four losses and the big pitching matchup and all? Right?
There’s an uncomfortable pause on the other end of the line. He doesn’t want to ruin my story, but he doesn’t really want to be drawn into my hyperventilating, either. "The reality is that those moments crop up all season long," he says finally. "I don’t think it’s right or proper for me to overreact to any one game. These moments come and go, and I believe that the organization clearly lives for another day–whether Schill won that one or didn’t win it."
Of course, he’s right. At that point, they still had 138 games to go–this season. And though they would go on a tear for the next week and a half, vaulting over the Mets into second place in the National League East before slipping back to third by the end of May, there would be any number of games in that period that also had that must-win feel–but were, in fact, just little upticks and downticks on the long graph of the season.
I should know this. I’ve been through it all before, for more years than I care to admit. But unlike Montgomery–who has been a fan for as long as I’ve been alive, who has worked for the Phillies for almost three decades now and who has become what the pros call a "good baseball man" as well as a good businessman–I still react viscerally to these things.
I am cautiously bullish on the team’s long-term potential, though, an outlook that is somewhat at odds with many of my fellow fans. Montgomery has been getting a lot of calls lately from, shall we say, emotional shareholders–fans, sportswriters, even the outspoken Schilling–to buy (free agents) and sell (the franchise) and otherwise go for a quick killing. One can hardly blame them for their impatience. For most of the past 15 years, they’ve had a very poor return on their psychic investment, and the more skittish have gotten out of the market altogether–the Phils’ season-ticket base is down more than 9,000 from the post-pennant high of 1994.
But while they don’t really want to hear about long-term strategies, there are plenty of people in the densely populated Philadelphia area who would love to buy what the Phillies would also love to sell: a winning team. Barring key injuries–and the one to Brantley could be one of those–that does not seem far off. As I write this, the Phils’ starting lineup has been one of the most potent in the majors, their bench remarkably productive, their glove-work often artful, and the pitching staff–well, it’s still pretty much Question Mark and the Mysterians, except when Schilling and Paul Byrd (plucked off the Atlanta waiver-wire last summer) are on the mound. They’re also a fun team to watch, with some exciting young players–third-baseman Scott Rolen, catcher Mike Lieberthal, right-fielder Bobby Abreu and center-fielder Doug Glanville EAS’93, to name a few–and a certain esprit de corps. Their farm system has been revitalized, though it’s still some years away from providing them with a steady stream of stars. Nobody expects them to win their division this year unless the Atlanta Braves ($73-million payroll, great farm system) suddenly defect to Cuba, and even a wild-card berth has to be considered a long shot. But they’re a team worth following again–if you’ve got the, um, Right Stuff.
Montgomery has been with the Phillies for 28 years–starting as a member of the sales department and gradually working his way up into the executive offices. He has only been in charge of the franchise for two years, though, and given its sorry state when he took over–the Phils had the worst record in baseball and one of the worst farm systems in the majors–one should really judge him by the team’s angle of ascent or descent. Right now, the Phillies appear to be on the ascendant. Whether the angle is dramatic enough to win back their hard-bitten fans is another question.

previous page | next page   

July/August Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 7/7/99