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Squeeze Play, continued...



In a sense, Dave Montgomery has been preparing for this job from childhood. He grew up in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, and can give a detailed description of the route he followed to make the 20-minute drive to old Connie Mack Stadium. When he was four, his parents bought their first TV in order to watch the Phils play the Yankees in the 1950 World Series. (The Whiz Kids lost in four games.) His longtime friend and first roommate at Penn, U.S. Attorney Michael Stiles C’67, remembers going to a Phillies game with a group that included Montgomery, whose attempt to win an informal hot-dog-and-ice-cream-eating contest left him lying on the Connie Mack concrete, moaning piteously. Montgomery spent a lot of evenings listening to his "beloved Phils" on the radio, and as a Penn freshman, he was in the stands that fateful night in September 1964 when the Reds’ Chico Ruiz stole home against the then-first-place Phils, triggering one of the most famous late-season collapses in baseball history. History is not a Phillies fan.

"I still remember as we turned the corner onto Market Street, seeing the joy on the faces of all those thousands of people. The fan in me exploded along with everybody else."

    Montgomery, now an alumni trustee, was a history major at Penn, but it was his "math aptitude" that helped get him into Wharton’s MBA program, where he steered clear of finance and accounting and ended up in marketing, hoping to become what he calls a "business generalist." He was also a sports generalist, ardently following Penn football and basketball, and after earning his MBA in 1970 he began interviewing with the city’s professional sports teams while coaching football at Germantown Academy. His young players there included the son of former Whiz Kid Robin Roberts, a connection that helped get him an interview with the Phils.
   
"I went from the initial meetings with the Scott Papers and the Quaker Oats of the world," Montgomery recalls, "with all these structured series of interviews, to meeting somebody who talked to me for about two minutes and said, ‘Well, when do you want to start?’"
   
That was Bill Giles, in February 1971, as the Phillies were preparing to move into their bland new home–Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia. Giles, then the Phils’ vice president for business operations, was looking for salespeople at the time. "Dave had a Wharton and baseball background," he recalls, "and Robin Roberts introduced me to him and said he was a great guy. I said, ‘That’s enough for me–let’s put you to work and see what you can do.’"
   
Montgomery took over a ticket-sales beat from the late Richie Ashburn, the Phils’ announcer and former Whiz Kid, who was about to head south for spring training. Ashburn handed him a big stack of index cards with a name and a phone number scrawled on each one and told him there were a "lot of good leads there." The fourth number Montgomery dialed got him through to Laurel Hill Cemetery.
   
The Phils were owned by the Carpenter family back then, and though they were pretty terrible (again), Ruly Carpenter was laying the foundations that would transform the team into a powerhouse by the end of the decade. Between 1976 and 1983 they would win five division championships (51/2 if you include the strike-split 1981 season), two National League pennants and one World Championship, largely on the strength of a great farm system that produced such home-grown talent as Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone.
   
Montgomery was the Phils’ director of sales when they won the franchise’s only World Championship in 1980. The day after the Series ended, he was about to get onto the float that would take the team and its brass down Market Street and Broad Street to Veterans Stadium for a very-long-overdue victory parade and chest-thumping. He had been feeling strangely washed out since the climactic moment the night before, as though the roaring adrenalin and frantic pace that had marked the pennant race and the playoffs against the Astros and those six hard-fought Series games against the Kansas City Royals had swept everything away.
   
"I was standing next to [Phillies’ announcer] Chris Wheeler, and I said, ‘I don’t know, that’s not really me,’" he recalls. "It was not my style to be out front on a float. But I finally got up on it, and I still remember as we turned the corner onto Market Street, seeing the joy on the faces of all those thousands of people. The fan in me exploded along with everybody else."
   
It was a reaffirmation of his chosen vocation as well.
   
"We all run into these points where we say, ‘Am I doing the most meaningful thing?’" he says. "I’m not in a position where I can deliver world peace or cure a disease or anything like that. But seeing what happiness this game can bring to people’s lives made it all worthwhile."
   
The following year, Carpenter–appalled by the lavish contracts some of his fellow owners were handing out to second-tier free agents, and convinced that the game was heading for financial ruin–sold the team for the then-record price of $30 million to an ownership group headed by Giles, who immediately appointed Montgomery as his executive vice president.
   
"After two or three years, I could tell he was the main man to groom to take over my role," recalls Giles. "I thought he could easily take over after four or five years. Of all my lieutenants at that time, he had the potential to be something special. He was very bright and hard-working, very good with numbers and with people, and fun to be around. He even slept in my bed one time–but I had a golden retriever between us."
   
Although the Phils did win the pennant in 1983 and again in the magical freak-season of 1993, the franchise declined fairly steadily–first through a series of ill-advised trades and the departure of some key baseball people, then through some crippling injuries and a woefully neglected farm system. Montgomery became the team’s chief operating officer in 1992, and in 1994, the ownership group made him a co-general partner, giving him a percentage of ownership and signalling his eventual ascension.
   
By June 1997, the eventuality had arrived. The Phillies had the worst record in baseball, and a deeply frustrated Giles had reluctantly concluded that he would be better off putting his energies into getting a new, fan-friendly stadium for the team. (See sidebar on page 30.) On June 20 of that year, he announced in a press release that he was turning over the reins to Montgomery, who quickly made it clear that the days of quick fixes were over, and that the Phils were going to rebuild with younger players.
   
Though the Phils have played approximately .500 ball during his two-year reign, it will be a while before anyone can really begin to assess the Montgomery Era. But in the view of Paul Hagen, it’s wrong to assume that Montgomery is a "new face riding in to save this franchise."
   
Montgomery, he says, "has been the ultimate insider for 20 years, so to suggest that somehow he had nothing to do with everything that happened before he took this title, I think, is a little false."
   
Be that as it may, Montgomery has shown himself willing to make key changes–or at least to allow them to be made. His appointment of Ed Wade as general manager has met with almost universal approval, as has Wade’s decision to bring back such horsehide sages as Dallas Green, Lee Elia and Paul Owens. This past winter, at Green’s recommendation, some unproductive personnel in the farm system were fired and some highly regarded ones (such as Steve Noworyta) hired. The Phils significantly increased the budget for the annual summer draft, allowing them to sign some promising young players. And after years of near-total neglect in Latin America and Asia, they have staked some new claims in those deep lodes of talent.
   
Baseball America, which recently ranked the Phils’ system 21st out of the 30 major league farm systems, nonetheless indicated that it was a system on the rise, noting that the Phils’ excellent 1998 draft picks, "plus a complete makeover of the club’s development staff and philosophy, have injected energy into an underachieving system."
   
"I’d say their [farm] system is definitely on the upswing," says managing editor Will Lingo. "In the early-to-mid-nineties, it was probably regarded as one of the lesser systems in baseball, because the team didn’t put enough resources into scouting and player development. Now they’ve rededicated themselves in that regard."
   
Still, it will probably take a while for the public’s perception to change. Especially after the Phils’ first-round draft pick in 1997–a Florida State standout named J.D. Drew–refused, following a year-long holdout, to sign for what the Phillies offered. The fact that they offered him a multi-year package worth (with options) up to $6 million, the highest ever offered to a draft choice at the time, was not enough. Drew eventually went back into the draft and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for a reported $7 million over four years (plus another $1.5 million in incentives). "The Phillies did not understand the market," gloated Drew’s agent, Scott Boras. "The St. Louis Cardinals did."
   
After a slow, injury-plagued start with the Cardinals this season, Drew was sent down to the minors. But the contract he signed once again raised the stakes: The Phils’ number-one pick in 1998, slugging first-baseman Pat Burrell, ended up demanding $8 million for five years, knowing that the team faced a public-relations disaster if they got spurned and outbid again. This time, they paid.
   
"It was a gamble that didn’t work," says Dolson of the Drew incident. "I certainly don’t blame them for refusing to pay the money he demanded–I’ve seen too many cases of young players with ‘can’t-miss’ labels who do miss. And it’s entirely possible that he never wanted to come to Philly in the first place. So it was a mistake made with the best intentions–they drafted the best prospect out there. But they seem to have recovered nicely" in the 1998 draft.
    To Dolson, Montgomery’s approach of building up the farm system and bringing in young players makes a lot of sense–as does his willingness to tap the expertise of people like Dallas Green and Lee Elia.
   
"Bringing those people in, to me, is more important than X number of dollars you spend on some free agent who may or may not help you," he says, adding that the subsequent shakeup in the farm system was a "huge plus" for Montgomery. "It took somebody to step in there who was willing to make changes. And it’s apparent now that the changes were for the better. ’Course, they couldn’t be for the worse."

 

 

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