Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The (Philly Sports) World Turned Upside-Down
At the end of 2006, if you’d polled the sports-watching public of Philadelphia (plus displaced fans like me) on whether they had more faith in the procedural and operational wisdom of the Phillies or the Eagles, I think you would have gotten a very, very large majority giving the nod to the football team. Certainly all the evidence pointed in this direction: the Eagles were completing their sixth season of double-digit wins and playoff entry in the previous seven, while the Phillies had just finished a thirteenth straight season on the outside of the playoff hunt, looking in.

Good process leads to good outcomes, we might have said. The Eagles had made a plan and stuck with it, putting their faith in a core of front office, sideline and field leadership that had been in place since the turn of the decade: Joe Banner and Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan. They’d turned draft picks like Brian Westbrook and Shawn Andrews into stars, shown a deft touch at knowing when to cut bait on fan favorites like Hugh Douglas and when to bring guys back, most prominently linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Even decisions that seemed odd at first, like drafting defensive backs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown while starters Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were still seemingly healthy and in their primes, often turned out well. And when they did make mistakes, or things went bad—a Terrell Owens going rogue or Mark Simoneau failing to meet expectations—action was taken to protect the core of the team and preserve the winning formula.

The Phillies? They’d started with a plan around the same time that the Eagles brought in Reid and McNabb: build from within, get good and stay good. But their own biggest stars loudly doubted the team’s true commitment to winning: first Curt Schilling in 2000, then Scott Rolen in 2002 essentially talked their way out of town, and in both cases GM Ed Wade misread the situation and failed to extract a valuable return from his trade partners. Maybe worse, they lurched from one management style to another, as low-key outsider Terry Francona gave way to high-strung Phils lifer Larry Bowa, who was canned when—actually well after—he lost the clubhouse, in favor of laconic Charlie Manuel.

The drift was everywhere. Manuel’s big qualification seemed to be that he was personally close to the team’s highest-profile player, Jim Thome; but in Manuel’s first season, 2005, Thome got hurt and then was traded to create space for young slugger Ryan Howard. Everyone knew that the Phillies made the same mistakes again and again, operating in an environment of isolated, self-deluding management that failed to demand accountability from anyone in the executive suites or the dugout. The team's putative leaders, homegrown veterans like Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, were blasted for their evident lack of a champion’s desire and other intangibles.

The Phillies never seemed more discombobulated than in 2006. Yet another lousy first half led to fan and media calls for Manuel’s firing, probably in favor of another Bowa-like hardass. GM Pat Gillick, who had replaced Wade, traded away many of his veterans in late July for virtually no return. Gillick himself publicly gave up on the season, suggesting that maybe by 2008 his Phillies could contend… and then the team went on a tear. Ryan Howard hit out of his mind from mid-summer on, rewriting the team record book and ultimately winning the MVP award. With a week to go, the Phils led for the wild-card spot—only to fall just short once again. Two months later, the Eagles wrote the same book with a much happier ending, overcoming a series of devastating injuries to rebound from a 5-6 start, win their final five regular season games, claim a division title and defeat the Giants in the playoffs before narrowly losing in the conference semifinals.

Since then, however, almost everything has gone right for the Phillies while the Eagles have fallen into a pit dug about equally from bad luck and bad judgment. Like the 2006 Eagles, the 2007 Phils roared back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win their division; like the 2006 Phillies, the 2007 Eagles started slowly, missed the playoffs and wasted a spectacularly great season from their biggest star, Brian Westbrook.

This year, of course, the Phillies are World f$^% Champions… and it’s the Eagles, who once declared themselves the NFL’s “gold standard,” who seem blind to their own shortcomings and spectacularly adrift. Where Jimmy Rollins is praised as the heart of his team, it’s Donovan McNabb whose blasé attitude gets blasted in print and on air; Charlie Manuel is now revered for supporting his players and increasingly respected as a tactician, while Andy Reid is on the hot seat for his stunning flaws on the sideline and his clichéd incoherence at the press conference podium. The Same Old Phillies have given way to the Same Old Eagles as the team fans hate to love and love to hate.

I’m not sure what we can take away from any of this, though. Did the Phillies suddenly smarten up or pass some test of character in September 2007? Did the Eagles as an organization lose their grip at around the same time? Or was it all just luck—that the Phillies could have made the playoffs in 2001, or 2003, or 2006, and succeeded once there, while the Eagles caught a ton of breaks earlier in this decade?

Perhaps the only solid conclusion is that we all should be less sure of what we “know.” In sports as in much else.


Chris said...

i think the phils definitely could've made the playoffs in any of those years. there are so many games in baseball controlled by complete and utter luck...i think people just don't want to admit it.

Brian said...

playoff results are even more "lucky", the Eagles could've easily won 2-3 Superbowls under Reid if things went their way. The best thing you can do as a GM is to build your team to be good enough to get in the playoffs and do it consistently. Then pray that they get lucky enough to win it all.

The Navigator said...

One study I've been wanting to see for a while is how the Phillies stack up against other franchises since the ownership was forced out in the 40's and the team was taken over by folks who actually wanted to win. The Phillies have an organizational rep as all-time losers, but that tag is largely based on thirty years - roughly 1918 - 1947 - when the ownership was not making a genuine effort to compete and the teams on the field were world-historically bad. Thus, the first team to 10,000 losses, which stems in no small part from those thirty years of planned ineptitude. My suspicion is that, if you started in about 1948, you'd find that the Phillies are very much an average major league franchise. There have been low moments that every fan either knows or hears about - 1964 obviously, less obviously one winning season between 1987 and 2000 - but if you average out 60 years of baseball, I think the Phillies would look fine with their two championships, 5 WS appearances, a handful of all-time great players. I think the terrible franchise tag would look inapt in that light.

David said...

I can't quite bring myself to agree that the 2008 Phillies weren't intrinsically better than the near-miss teams of 2001-2007 (taking them as a group). The big difference I keep coming back to is the bullpen. Lidge obviously, but from the closer to the long man this was a clearly better group than any they'd had before in that period. Not only were the highest-leverage guys better, there was no one fatally weak link like Mesa/Williams in '03 or Cormier when he was lousy ('05?).

Probably you could extend the frame to the entire pitching staff. Hamels was the ace, and his IP total was probably more important than the 14 wins or whatever; all year, even with the staggered struggles of every starter but Hamels and Moyer, the rotation guys put up enough innings not to overexpose the relievers.

There *was* luck involved, of course, a lot of luck: avoiding the big injuries, having the Cubs knocked out in the NLDS, the way they could keep sending out Hamels for Game One. But the Branch Rickey line about luck being the residue of design seems to apply here.

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