Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"A Dream Come True"
At the beginning of this decade in 2000, Phillies ace Curt Schilling basically talked his way out of town. Upset that the team wouldn't sign him to a lucrative contract extension a year and a half before his deal was up and convinced that ownership would never show the financial and organizational commitment to winning that he himself felt, the large right-hander parlayed his excellence on the baseball diamond and his uncanny talent for generating media attention into a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Two years later, third baseman Scott Rolen followed pretty much the same path--with the important difference that the team did want to pay Rolen an astonishing amount of money. But he just hated one or more of the manager, Veterans Stadium, and the city of Philadelphia so much that he turned down their offer, and after general manager Ed Wade misplayed his hand in the Rolen situation even more egregiously than he had Schilling, the Indiana native finagled his way to "baseball heaven" in St. Louis through a trade. (Five and a half years later, when Rolen had soured on the Cardinals organization, he did it again and wound up moving on to Toronto--making the Phils look considerably better in retrospect.)

Schilling and Rolen were the signature players of the Phillies in the 1990s, remaining so into the new decade, and they both couldn't get out of town fast enough. Their attitude seemed of a piece with the team's uniquely miserable history and the decrepit stadium in which they played. Through the 2002 season that saw Rolen shipped out, the team had posted losing records in all but two of the previous sixteen years.

But it began to change that winter. Despite Rolen's judgment, the team wasn't far off: they'd posted one of those winning records in 2001 and finished just game below .500 in '02. A good young nucleus was in place on the field, with more talent--Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, to name three--already in the organization. And they knew they'd be opening a new stadium in 2004. So in early December 2002, the Phillies went out and signed the biggest name on the free-agent market, slugging first baseman Jim Thome, to what was by far the biggest contract in team history: six years, $85 million, with a vesting seventh year that brought the total value to $98 million. And with that, the Phillies were back on the baseball map in a sustained way for the first time in about 20 years.

The thing about the Thome contract, though, was that they overpaid. The only other serious suitor was the Cleveland Indians, Thome's old team, who offered fewer years and much less total money--something like four years, $55 million. The Indians were on the downswing as a franchise, and had fired their manager and Thome's close friend, Charlie Manuel, the previous summer. But it was known that if the deals were remotely comparable, he would have stayed in Cleveland. Only when the Phils guaranteed the sixth year and added the seventh (2009) as an easily reached vesting option did he sign his name.

Which is what makes today's conclusion to the team's yearlong pursuit of former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay so astounding to me. Unlike Schilling and Rolen, Halladay talked his way *to* Philadelphia. Halladay's contract included a full no-trade clause, and he made it clear to Toronto management that he'd only waive it for a few teams, including the Phillies. It took two Blue Jays general managers and considerable giving way on the part of Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr, who ultimately dealt several prospects he'd previously characterized as guys he absolutely wouldn't trade--plus, by most accounts, the unfortunate decision to trade Cliff Lee, the onetime Indians ace whom the team had acquired instead of Halladay last July, to provide payroll relief and replenish the minor-league system depleted in the Halladay deal--but the match has been made.

And not only did the pitcher, among the five best in the game and a possible future Hall of Famer, target Philadelphia as his destination; he agreed to a contract extension with the team almost certainly worth millions of dollars less than he could have made on the open market. Halladay's deal is for three years, $60 million, with two vesting options at the same average annual value of $20 million per; had the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets and Dodgers been involved, it's almost unimaginable that he would have gotten less than four or five years guaranteed, at a total value over $100 million. Knowing that the team wouldn't trade for him without the bargain extension, THE GUY TOOK LESS MONEY TO BE A PHILLIE.

From the press conference this afternoon:

"This is where I wanted to be. That was the bottom line for us. It was an easy decision. Once the opportunity came up to be a part of this it was something I couldn't pass up. I think there are things not only in business but in life that are worth it. For me, this is one of those things. There are so many positives to this for me and my family. I just couldn't pass it up."

"This is a dream come true. The longer you play in your carer the more important (winning) becomes. I've been able to establish myself, achieve things. The more I play, the more I realize how important that is for me. To see a team do it in back-to-back years and have that success says a lot about the players in the clubhouse and people that are putting the team together. It's not an accident. I want to be a part of that. I've heard great things about the people and great things about the organization. That is big for me."

"The biggest thing is having a chance to win and hopefully do it a couple of times. For me, that was the biggest factor."

That he made these two decisions, to highlight the Phils as the team he wanted to join and to accept less money--still a vast fortune, to be sure, but less than he could have made--as a condition of staying for awhile, is a tribute to what the team started to build even back when Schilling and Rolen were grousing their way out of town. The kids in the system then, Jimmy Rollins and Utley and Howard and Hamels, are superstars now. Thome's old friend Charlie Manuel, who was hired by the Phils organization almost as an afterthought that same winter of 2002-2003, has been the team's manager for five years now and is generally regarded as the greatest in its history. They'd built such a deep and talented minor-league system, through three GM regimes, that they could trade for both Lee and Halladay from their top prospects of just a year ago. They won back to back NL pennants, the first of which led to their becoming world f---ing champions, and with Halladay in the fold will start 2010 as favorites to become the first NL team in almost seventy years to make it three straight.

While part of me wonders what Scott Rolen thinks of all this, I'm mostly just gobsmacked and delighted that it all turned around so wonderfully in less than a decade. The circle is now complete.


Anonymous said...
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The Navigator said...

That's a fantastic point - I didn't make that connection until I read it here, but I posted defenses of the Thome deal in 2003 making that point, that the Phils definitely overpaid but that they had to overpay. And now they can underpay Halladay. To pitch in OFJOAB! This is a a terrific and highly apt contrast to draw.