Just in case you were still wondering if John Middleton is the official, public-facing owner of the Phillies… well, wonder no more.
Middleton – and his six handlers* – agreed to take part in an excellent Philly Mag profile, written by the excellent Robert Huber. It is long, but well worth your time. This may be more than has ever been written about Middleton, and, bonus, it’s all on one webternets page(!). The only thing the piece lacks is POWERS (there’s only one passing mention of POWERS).
You get the sense that Middleton is suddenly – perhaps because he’s being sued by what sounds like a truly awful sister – hyper-aware of his public image, but also genuine in wanting to win his fucking trophy back.
Here are a few worthwhile excerpts:
That fan-boy connection hasn’t changed much. After the World Series game in ’08 in which Chase Utley faked a throw to first and then nailed a runner at the plate, Middleton dissected the play in the locker room with his second baseman: “Chase, was that designed? Or something you do in a millisecond after 20 years of training?” Sitting behind home plate with Middleton on opening day in April, I see his cold-blooded analysis, too. When a Phils batter grounds out weakly, I ask if the player, one the team has been nurturing for some time, will ever become a good hitter. Middleton groans: “No.”
My best guess is that he was talking about Darin Ruf, who grounded a soft chopper to short for a rally-killing double play in the bottom of the ninth. I agree with Middleton’s assessment.
The beginning of the end was the World Series of 2009. The Phillies lost to the Yankees, and after the sixth and deciding game, John Middleton went into the visitors’ locker room in the Bronx. Ryan Howard was sitting alone, his head down. In a red Phillies windbreaker and hat, Middleton knelt before him, and put his hand on Howard’s leg.
“You okay?” Middleton said.
“Ryan, I want my fucking trophy back. It’s fucking ours.”
This story, I believe, has been made public before, but it’s still worth pointing out for its sheer awesomeness. However, I disagree that 2009 was the beginning of the end. The Phillies added Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence and others over the next two years, and had the best record in baseball in 2010 and 2011. They could’ve easily won the World Series either year.
On Middleton’s analytical approach… which for some reason took 20 years to bubble to the surface:
Herb and John pulled the trigger in ’93 — 15 percent of the team for $18 million — and John got heavily involved. The owners met four times a year, and the role as head of the board rotated among them, until it was John’s turn to preside. Nobody wanted to replace him; he was a dog with a rag. Fellow owner Michael Betz, who recently sold his 10 percent share to John and the Buck cousins, says Middleton was obsessed with changing the team’s direction. Nothing was too large or small, “including where we were buying chairs for the boardroom.” He calls John’s drive and ability to gather data “terrifying.” Betz means that as a compliment: “I remember my first aha! moment with John. We were sitting around the boardroom, and John said, ‘In order to analyze something, you need to be able to measure it.’ That’s quite a statement, if you look at it.” Middleton constantly cornered Betz with his complaints and ideas, about the business operation, the team itself, Giles, anything. “The team was run in an old-time-baseball style,” Betz says. “Scouts would stand around and talk about whether a batter’s hands dropped before he swung the bat. But I don’t think John had any answers. I don’t think anyone did.” The Phillies, after all, were the losingest sports franchise ever for a reason, a tanker that had been chugging in one direction for a long time.
Huber tried to pull back the curtain on Middleton and David Montgomery’s (strained?) relationship. He didn’t get very far… but he did manage to get Montgomery to give a maddeningly naive answer about organizational goals:
Montgomery’s demotion — he now represents the team in league matters and in the community — is trickier to parse. He got jaw cancer in 2014, just as Middleton’s frustration with his management was ratcheting up, and as he was pushing into his late 60s. Montgomery’s friend Mike Tollin, a sports filmmaker who grew up in Havertown, calls the demotion a “bloodless coup.” It was handled with kid gloves, and Middleton is careful now to praise Montgomery for his great warmth and service to the team. But the real answer to what had to happen lies in an order of priorities. In Montgomery’s office in Clearwater in late March, I ask him which is more important: an organization where loyalty reigns supreme, including to the players who brought the team a championship, or winning. Montgomery answers by raising his hands from his desk to hold them flat before me at the same level: One hand represents loyalty, the other winning. They bob in tandem. Neither is superior.
And thus explains just about every decision the Phillies made from 2012-2015.
There’s something to love about Middleton, a local guy who’s made his money and is now more interested in his legacy and winning. He’s a stark contrast to Joshua Harris, who is a dick. You certainly get the sense that much of Huber’s access – which was apparently A LOT – was scripted by the Middleton camp, and therefore it’s hard to glean whether this a profile of the real man or the man Middleton wants us to see. But, Huber did a nice job putting into context everything he saw and heard. By most accounts, Middleton genuinely wants to win. And it’s nice to finally put a story behind that billionaire hair.
Read the story here.
*I should’ve hired a few neighborhood kids to serve as my handlers when Richard Rys showed up at my house to profile me two years ago. Gotta keep up appearances. [I did put on pants and put out pretzels for the interview.]