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Squeeze Play, continued...

   "I really believe they are turning things around," says Frank Dolson C’54, longtime sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and now a scout for the New York Yankees ["Alumni Profiles," May/June]. "I don’t know if they’re going to make the playoffs–it would be a long shot, even though at this moment they’re right in the mix. It’s questionable whether they’ve got the pitching. But the fact is, they’re a legitimate, competitive ball club now, which is something they haven’t been for a while. Give Dave the credit for it. He’s the guy who would take the heat if they were still lousy."
    Well, actually, he’s taking some heat anyway. That’s partly owing to his conservative, low-key style, which some apparently misinterpret as lackadaisical. It’s also partly owing to the perception–which does have some basis in reality–that when the leaves turn brown, the teams that keep playing are usually lavish with the green.
    "I know there are people in Philadelphia in my former business who are always knocking Dave for being too tight with the purse strings," says Dolson. "You know–let’s see what happens with this club he’s put together. You can look 90 miles to the south to see what Baltimore’s done. They’re spending $75-$80 million in salaries, and they’ve got a last-place ballclub now that was under .500 last year. Just spending $80 million doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be in the World Series. Or the playoffs. Or out of the cellar, for that matter. Brains do figure in somewhere–and so does running the thing right."

"We’re sort of building equity in the term Phillies," Montgomery was saying a few nights before, as the Phils were locked in a scoreless tie with the Cincinnati Reds. Equity is a rather odd bit of Whartonspeak to be tossing about in a ballpark, though it’s a legitimate word for the CEO of a corporation. He was talking about the organization’s new approach in the farm system, making sure the young players in their six minor-league teams are all getting the same caliber of instruction. It’s a theme that crops up repeatedly in discussions with Phillies executives. Montgomery, it’s clear, wants everyone to be reading off the same page.
   
It’s probably the combination of his Wharton background and fiscal conservatism that has prompted the local Fourth Estate to paint him as a steely, buttoned-down executive more concerned with getting the team into the black than into the playoffs. (One has gone so far as to compare him to Ebenezer Scrooge.) Sportswriters often have their reasons, but from a human standpoint, at least, the portrait seems almost comically severe. Based on the grand total of one evening spent in his company and a bundle of interviews with associates–some disinterested, some not–I will put my reputation on the line and say that if Montgomery is not in fact a warm, down-to-earth, good-humored man who genuinely likes people and genuinely loves baseball, then he’s one hell of a Method actor.
   
He is not, as he cheerfully acknowledges, a colorful font of sound bites, and it’s clear that he finds all the questions about his club’s payroll distasteful. Unlike former Phillies CEO (and current chairman) Bill Giles, who enjoyed schmoozing with the press and stirring things up in the papers, Montgomery avoids the limelight as much as possible. But apart from the occasional disgruntled sportswriter, most observers say his touch with people is as real as his facility with numbers.
   
"The thing about Dave is, he has excellent people skills," says Ruly Carpenter, who owned the Phillies for the first decade of Montgomery’s employment. "He’s a good listener–able to communicate with anybody in the organization, from the top echelon down to the guys who sweep the stadium. He’s also very good at controlling his emotions. He’s always the same, regardless of what’s going on on the field."
   
That steady hand and those people skills should not be dismissed as nice-but-irrelevant. They have enabled him–or rather, his general manager, Ed Wade–to bring some first-rate baseball men back to the organization after years of personality-driven exile during the Giles era, and to make some long-overdue personnel changes based on their recommendations.
   
The charge that he wants to get the team into the black has some truth to it, but that’s a more complicated issue.
   
"People don’t like to hear that the guy running their team is a smart businessman, but it does help," says Douglas Myers WG’92, author of The Scouting Report: 1997 and an upcoming book about the Chicago Cubs, Essential Cubs. "They might not think it does, especially when he makes unpopular decisions–everybody wants short-term, no one wants long-term. But if he indeed is true to his word, and puts that revenue back [into the farm system], and won’t be satisfied with just filling a stadium with a little lousy team, then I think he will look like a very wise baseball man, not just a good businessman."
   
Paul Hagen, who covers the Phils for the Philadelphia Daily News, is less impressed by Montgomery’s business acumen. "I’m not one of these people who thinks you should just go out and buy a championship," he says, "but I do know that you have to spend money to make money in baseball–particularly in Philadelphia. It seems to me that Dave would rather improve five games a year for four years than improve 20 games this year. And in this day and age, I don’t think you have five-year plans anymore. Plus, you’re in the entertainment industry. You’ve got to give people a reason."
   
The Phillies hope to end up in the black this year after several seasons in the red, and having raised ticket prices and trimmed the fat from their major-league payroll, they may be able to. It’s not the fan-friendliest timing, but as Montgomery points out, the Phils have upped their spending considerably in a variety of not-so-visible ways, and they know that in a few years they’ll be paying a lot more for their young nucleus than they are now. Although Forbes magazine recently claimed–based on a formula derived from some available numbers–that the Phillies turned a $4.5 million profit last year, Montgomery says the magazine, which did not have access to the team’s books, was actually "off by 15 million bucks."
   
"We did pretty well financially until 1994," says Giles, "but whatever money we made we always put back into acquiring better players. Since ’94, we’ve managed to lose quite a bit of money." The following year, incidentally, was the last time that the Phils made a big splash in the free-agent market, giving a four-year, $20-million contract to Gregg Jefferies–who turned out to be an expensive disappointment.
   
For all his Wharton background and facility with numbers, Montgomery wishes that people "would look at individual players as components of a team" without worrying so much about their salaries.
   
"When you narrow down to a 25-man payroll, you’re missing a great deal of the true picture of where the organization’s going," he says. "Last year, we ranked third or fourth in spending on player development. There’s a reason for that; we had a high draft pick and some other things. But there are many baseball [dollars] spent outside of just the payroll number.
   
"The fact that Scott Rolen this year makes a million, and in two years makes $5.5 million, doesn’t make him any different as a player," he points out. "And right now, we’ve gone the direction–intentionally, because we think it’s the right direction–of building the nucleus of what we think are talented young players. Where they are in the salary cycle today, and where they’ll be in a year or two, are things you’d better be aware of and plan for. And hopefully, over time, we will build fan identification with this nucleus."
   
Trying to break even should not be a crime for a baseball team, or any other business. But in a time when Major League Baseball has taken on a crazy, Gold Rush quality–when huge corporations and multi-millionaires buy teams and dangle hundred-million-dollar contracts in front of free-agent stars in order to bring home a championship, then dismantle their championship teams like car thieves in a chop shop–the Phillies’ approach has a retro quality. Their goal, as they put it in one of their commercials, is to "get good and stay good." The means to that end involves sound fundamentals, organizational consistency, long-term investment–and patience.
   
"What happens in sports is–people tend to make rash judgments," says Robert P. Levy C’52, a former member of the Phils’ ownership group. "We’re all guilty of it. Guy pops up four times, you say the son of a bitch can’t play. David doesn’t do that. He’s very, very methodical; very, very thorough; and when he makes a decision, it’s usually a good one."
   
"The key with David is patience," agrees Dallas Green, the Phils’ senior advisor, who has held almost every important job in baseball. "He understands the problems, but he also understands that there are no quick solutions, and patience is something we’re all going to have to have. And he’s the leader in that category."
   
It’s a laudable quality in a CEO. It’s not one for which Philadelphia fans are famous.
   
But Montgomery is not easily fazed. The key to a franchise’s success, he insists, "is customer services. If you’re consistent in your treatment of fans, over time, they reward you with their loyalty."
   
Especially if you win.

 

 

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