CLEARWATER, Fla. – None of the Philadelphia Phillies’ five starters looked particularly enthused at their official unveiling Monday afternoon. Roy Oswalt(notes) rolled his eyes. Joe Blanton(notes) grimaced. Cole Hamels(notes) guffawed. Cliff Lee(notes) glowered. Roy Halladay(notes) stared at nothing. If they’re going to be the best pitching rotation ever, such rigmarole is part of the deal. It didn’t mean they had to like it.
All the while, Ruben Amaro Jr. was stifling a grin. Along the back wall, away from the camera clicks and digital recorders, he put his hands in his pockets, crossed left leg over right and leaned against a trash can. He couldn’t help but gaze at the Phillies’ Four Aces and a Joe-ker. This was his Michelangelo.
Every general manager fantasizes about building a mega-team, and in front of him was the visage of success. Through trades and the shocking victory in the free agent sweepstakes for Lee, Amaro upgraded the Phillies to the biggest, baddest team in baseball – one that walks alongside the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox without at all looking out of place.
“Philly has become a place where people like to go,” Amaro said, and though that goes unsaid in New York and Boston and even Los Angeles, it’s still a difficult-to-grasp concept for Amaro. He’s a born-and-bred Philadelphian. He lived through the lean years after the 1980 World Series win. He played on a couple particularly brutal Phillies teams in the late ’90s. The franchise was a nonentity.
So to see all five of them together in red Phillies uniforms, Halladay, Blanton, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, left to right – to move past imagining the possibilities and onto soaking in the reality – left Amaro in a good place. Spring means possibilities, and though most go unrealized, the Phillies winning another World Series is less far-fetched than most.
“I felt like this was the best chance to win world championships,” Lee said. “That’s what it’s all about. I played here in the past and enjoyed myself here and thought we had a really good team at that time, and since then they’ve made a couple of additions that made the team better.”
Think about that: Lee’s other main suitors were the Texas Rangers (last year’s American League champions) and the New York Yankees (the previous season’s World Series winner), and he turned down more guaranteed money from both teams to return to Philadelphia. Amaro had traded Lee to Seattle before the 2010 season as part of a deal that sent Halladay to the Phillies, and it stung both parties enough that the prospect of a reunion never seemed a possibility.
And yet when Lee finished meeting with the Yankees and Rangers, the taste of Philadelphia lingered on his palate. Never mind the perception that the Phillies were tapped out payroll-wise. Lee wanted to come to Philadelphia, and Amaro went to team president David Montgomery and asked for an earmark. Five years and $120 million later, the Phillies had the best rotation since Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine(notes) and John Smoltz(notes) headlined the Atlanta Braves’ decade of dominance.
“A big part of it for me is not having the best pitching staff in history but having the best chance to get to the postseason and the best chance to win the World Series,” Halladay said. “To be on a team that has that chance is what every player wants. … It’s why you come to places like this. To be around the best players.”
The pitchers themselves refused to engage in the hyperbole that will encircle them all season. They don’t care for a nickname. They refuse to guarantee anything. They are five of a kind: laconic, monotonous, 60-beats-per-minute pulse, 120/80 blood pressure automatons. In other words, perfect for a pitcher.
On occasion, they’ll veer out of their tunnels and crack wise. Poor Blanton, fifth wheel to the four Cy Young candidates but certainly no slouch, looked out of place and felt even more so as Hamels was asked a question about being the only one with a championship ring. Blanton, of course, played for the 2008 Phillies as well. “I know you forget about me,” he said, “but it's OK.”
Everything was Monday. Finally Amaro’s handiwork was more than on paper. Ever tangible was this group that, in concert with a lineup still including Chase Utley(notes), Ryan Howard(notes), Jimmy Rollins(notes), Shane Victorino(notes), Placido Polanco(notes), Raul Ibanez(notes) and Carlos Ruiz(notes), can win a championship. Rare is there an event to behold in spring training. Rarer is one that doesn't include a steroid mea culpa. On the eve of Phillies camp opening, a good vibe coursed through the stadium.
Now comes the tough part, turning the potential into victories, and spinning those into postseason success. Amaro is crossing all his phalanges for the Phillies to stay healthy. He’s done the hard work, trading for Blanton, trading for Lee, trading for Halladay and bringing Lee back. The rest is up to the players and, Amaro said, “the baseball gods.”
Who, for now, are fine with how the Phillies are comporting themselves. There were no smoke machines, no loud music, no parade to present what may be an iconic group. Lee made his decision, lowercase D, and though he was sitting in the center among his rotation mates, it could’ve been any of them. They’ll spend six weeks here, head home for the first of a 162-game slog and try to fulfill the destiny others are writing for them.
Should it play out, they’ll do it stone-faced. And somewhere in the background, Ruben Amaro, the architect, will be smiling.
- Ruben Amaro