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Delayed gratification: How the Phillies finally turned one of baseball’s longest rebuilds into a trip to the World Series

Rhys Hoskins was booed when he was introduced to an already almost-delirious, sold-out crowd of Philadelphia Phillies fans in his first at-bat in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Since this is a story about redemption, we don’t need to waste too much time on the merits of such behavior or what it says about a fan base. He’d had a rough postseason so far, so they booed. And when he launched a two-run shot to cut the San Diego Padres’ early lead in half, they cheered. They cheered again for his second two-run homer in the wild 10-6 win on Saturday that put the Phillies within a game of the World Series. And I don’t know the exact decibel, but they probably cheered loudest of all for his third two-run home run in two games in Sunday’s pennant-clinching 4-3 victory. Hoskins, drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 2014 — the first of three times in a four-year span they would finish last in the division, and the second in a nine-year stretch of finishing at or below .500 — here is an allegory. A parable about patience, impatience, how the payoff might be just around the corner. And, most importantly, about how none of that matters when it finally arrives.

The Phillies’ pursuit of generational free agent Bryce Harper in the 2019 offseason was aided by a couple of factors. First of all, owner John Middleton’s bold proclamations — the one about “stupid money,” of course, along with other similar promises to win at all costs — had agents like Scott Boras clamoring to speak with front office staff. In early February, the Phillies had traded for J.T. Realmuto, the Miami Marlins’ All-Star catcher whom Harper had publicly expressed interest in playing alongside. And when the Middletons visited the Harpers, the owners brought a compelling pitch for the team’s competitive future.

Middleton talked about his college career as a competitive wrestler, and how it had taught him discipline, sacrifice and that there’s no use doing anything you’re not ambitious about.

“I just said, ‘Look, I've taken all of that and I translated it first to my business and now to this business,’” Middleton told Yahoo Sports last week. “I said, ‘I wake up every day trying to figure out what I can do today to get us closer to the World Series. And when I don't wake up and feel that way, I'm going to walk out of that.’ So I said, ‘I'm here. I'm here for the duration. I can't promise you anything, because you just never know what's going to happen, but I will give you 100% from Day 1 to the last day. I'm here.’”

That, and $330 million over 13 years, brought Bryce Harper to Philadelphia. Harper, in turn, brought hope and expectation to a fan base already tired of waiting. To understand that part, you have to go back a little further.

Oct 23, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17) celebrates a win over the San Diego Padres to win the National League Pennant in game five of the NLCS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17) celebrates a win over the San Diego Padres to win the National League pennant in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

'It felt like it was a long way away'

It is not hard to figure out when the story about the Phillies’ long “Odyssey”-like voyage through frustration and irrelevance back to the Fall Classic starts: On Oct. 7, 2011, Ruben Amaro Jr. was the general manager, the team was three years out from a championship, two years out from a pennant, and had won 102 games in the regular season in their fifth straight year of making the playoffs. And then beloved MVP first baseman Ryan Howard tore his Achilles tendon on the play that officially eliminated the Phillies from the division series. Until this year’s near-magical run, they hadn’t been back to the postseason since.

“If Billy Beane ran the Phillies, he would have started trading everyone the moment Howard collapsed in the dirt,” Jayson Stark, writing then for ESPN after covering the Phillies at The Philadelphia Inquirer for two decades, told Philadelphia Magazine just before the 2017 season. He was speaking with the benefit of five years of hindsight, but already that was the prevailing sentiment. In fact, by 2011, some would say it was already too late.

The following spring training, Amaro told the New York Times that he should have “pushed to start the transition earlier” and “found a better way to incorporate analytics into the team’s strategies.” He was speaking from the position of no longer being the GM. His failure to do either of those things in a timely fashion sealed his fate.

Like Howard himself, who played in Triple-A for two different organizations but never made it back to the majors after his time in Philadelphia ended in 2016, the Phillies hung on too long — to the '08 team that won the World Series, and to an older style of front-office operations.

“Moneyball” the book came out in 2003. The movie was released in 2011. By 2013, the Phillies still had zero dollars committed to analytics. The following year, that number was just $100,000. And in February 2015, ESPN ranked them dead last, 122nd out of 122, among all major sports franchises for embrace of analytics. Finally, after the 99-loss 2015 season, there was a regime change, with Matt Klentak hired to replace Amaro and enact a modern “rebuild.”

He warned ownership it could take several years to reap the rewards. In the 2017 Philly Mag story, Stark grimly estimated that the Phillies’ late embrace of the rebuild meant it could be closer to nine or 10 years.

“It felt like it was a long way away, not only because of the roster construction, but also because of the infrastructure,” a Phillies source told Yahoo Sports.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 23: Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton lifts the Warren C. Giles trophy after the Phillies defeated the San Diego Padres in game five to win the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 23, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Phillies owner John Middleton lifts the Warren C. Giles Trophy after the Phillies defeated the San Diego Padres in Game 5 to win the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park on Oct. 23, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) (Tim Nwachukwu via Getty Images)

Just before the 2018 season, FiveThirtyEight ranked the Phillies second only to the 2010-14 Astros in “most extreme five-year rebuilds,” based on measuring cost cutting and accrual of young talent. But because the Phillies had languished, after 2008 and even still after 2011, without consideration for the future, there seemed to be some confusion around when the rebuild started. The calculation was based on the period from 2013-17, but the article itself said “the teardown commenced in earnest” after Amaro was fired in 2015.

“I think where things got off track, if I'm just being brutally honest with you, is we tried to go too fast at the major league level,” the source said.

The FiveThirtyEight piece seemed dubious that “the Phillies have spent this offseason loading up on older players as though they were a few key pieces away from contention.” But the bigger problem was that it worked, initially. The 2018 club, helmed by Gabe Kapler, finished the first half 11 games above .500 and in first place. They started September still in contention before going 8-20 over the final month.

And if that collapse stung, it would feel that much worse the following year after adding Realmuto, Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura in the offseason.

“I was hoping it was the year, I thought we had the people there to do it,” Middleton said about 2019. “Frankly, even if we did make it into the playoffs that year, I didn't want to be one and done. So it was the first step in what we hoped was a multiyear process playing out.”

That season started off with a bang. They won 10-4 on opening day and went on to sweep the reigning division champion Atlanta Braves.

“It was incredible,” Realmuto said recently. “Honestly, the first series playing here after coming from Miami, where there's not a huge fan base, we played the Braves that series and we ended up sweeping them, and this place was absolutely rocking. I couldn't believe how much fun it was in the atmosphere that they created. Obviously there were a lot of expectations that season and we didn't quite live up to them, but hopefully we're making up for that now.”

Expectations are not a flaw in a fan base. They hold ownership accountable and exist in opposition to apathy. The people who build teams have to be realistic; the people who root for them shouldn’t be at the expense of optimism.

Phillies fans wanted to watch their team win — if not sooner, then certainly in 2019. And when they finished .500 and outside the playoffs again after another September collapse, the frustration took a toll. First-time manager Kapler was fired that offseason and replaced with the veteran Joe Girardi. And even though his contract runs through this year, Klentak was forced to step down after the shortened 2020 season also ended in disappointment. That offseason, ESPN wrote about the Phillies as “the first team in what we might call baseball's tanking era to fail at it.”

Less than a week after that article was published, the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski, as famous for his all-in mentality as for his track record of success.

On the eve of clinching the pennant, Middleton raved about Dombrowski, whom he said “really raised our floor.”

“You can try to put the systems in place,” he said. “But if the organization doesn't accept it, the people in the organization do not accept those changes. You just don't snap your fingers and people say, ‘Oh, OK, I'll do something differently than I've done for 20 years’. And that's the hard thing. And Matt and Andy [MacPhail] kind of did a lot to kind of break down that old culture. It took Dave to come in and really kind of push it through at the end.”

It took one more change, however, to get over the hump.

“I don't know that I've ever seen a Phillies team go through a midseason transformation the way this one has,” Middleton said. “And that was really cool. I didn't expect that. I expected it to be better, but it went from zero to 60 in a second.”

Although he didn’t use anyone’s name, Middleton was talking about something specific. The 2022 season started with a franchise-record payroll, fourth overall in baseball, and an impatience bordering on resentment. And so on June 3, then 22-29, the Phillies did what many flailing franchises do: They fired Girardi and elevated bench coach Rob Thomson to interim manager.

It couldn’t have worked any better. They finished the season 65-46, earning their first postseason berth in over a decade and a two-year deal as no-longer-interim manager for Thomson.

Middleton calls him “a reflection of the new culture” that the Phillies have been working on now for seven years — the upper limits of what Klentak had predicted the turnaround might take back in 2015.

“And Rob has absolutely kind of pushed that culture through the players and in his staff and, I think frankly, through the fan base,” Middleton said.

Oct 23, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies designated hitter Bryce Harper (3) reacts after hitting a two-run home run in the eighth inning during game five of the NLCS against the San Diego Padres for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Phillies designated hitter Bryce Harper (3) reacts after hitting a two-run home run in the eighth inning during Game 5 of the NLCS against the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

Worth the wait

Harper says now that he knew it would take time.

“I said it in my first spring training, it's going to take us a couple years to get there,” he said during the NLCS. “It's going to take us a couple years to build this thing. It's going to take a couple years to understand what our identity is and who we are and what we can do.”

Perhaps it’s easier to stomach that notion when you’re sitting at a podium in front of an “MLB Postseason”-branded backdrop. But even still, the waiting doesn’t make it any sweeter.

“No, I mean, I want to win every year,” he said. “I wish it would have happened in '19.”

For Hoskins, that timeline is even longer. Debuting in 2017, he’s the Phillies’ longest-tenured position player. He’s lived through all the steps it took to go from 96 losses to championship contenders and, looking back, he sees purpose in all of them.

“The purpose started with John Middleton, who wants to win more than anything in the world,” he said. “A lot of it … is behind closed doors. It's the staff. It's the R&D department. It's the strength and conditioning. It's the nutritionist. It's all of these things that are being put into place to make us players have the best chance to succeed out on the field.”

On Friday, those machinations will finally manifest in a World Series appearance. That doesn’t make the process any less painful, but maybe it makes it all worth it.

“I'll always hope it won't take as long as it has,” Hoskins said about playing in the postseason. “But it's blown every thought and expectation that I had out of the water.”