PHILADELPHIA – He needs to be on the move, more so when he's nervous. Out of the general manager's suite he'll go, down to the concourse, making his way through a crowd that used to pay him no mind, even though he's always been one of their own, Philly-born and bred.
The anonymity is gone now, though. The kid who grew up in northeast Philadelphia, who used to tag along to the ballpark with his infielder dad, became batboy for the first Philadelphia Phillies team to win a World Series, played with another Phillies team that won a pennant, then became GM within a week after the Phillies won their second world title, gets the double-takes, the comments, the waves.
The only way Ruben Amaro Jr. would pass by unnoticed now is if he borrowed the gorilla suit from another hometown kid who grew up to run a franchise, Boston's Theo Epstein. Everybody loves a winner, especially in Philly, where champions come few and far between. And if you don't win, as Amaro knows as well as anybody, they'll be waiting to boo you, too.
"Some of my friends have said to me, couldn't you have taken the job when they were in last place and built them up?'' Amaro said the other day while sitting in the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park. "I don't get caught up in that stuff.
"The last few years, we've been through so many minuses and pluses, you understand that sometimes things don't work out, the best-laid plans don't work out, and you've got to roll with it. My job is to provide a scenario for our fans where we have a chance, at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, to be a playoff club.''
The Phillies' plan this season already has developed a few glitches. The ace, Cole Hamel, developed a sore elbow in spring training, was whacked in the pitching shoulder by a line drive, and twisted an ankle. Without Hamels setting the tone, the rest of the starters have been pummeled. Left-handed setup man J.C. Romero(notes) is serving a 50-game suspension after failing a drug test. Dynamic shortstop and leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins(notes) is off to a slow start, manager Charlie Manuel finally deciding to drop him in the order.
The Phillies have been hovering around .500, which in the NL East so far has been enough to keep them in contention. But it is already clear that repeating as champs and having another Broad Street rendezvous with a million or so fans like the one that brought tears to the eyes of Manuel at last year's parade, will be a challenge. It always is.
The safer course for Amaro would have been to become a veterinarian, which is what he thought about when he was in high school. He'd always had a soft spot for animals, especially after his mom and dad scooped up a stray cat while in Eugene, Ore., and after Jim Bunning, who was his dad's teammate in Philly before becoming a U.S. senator, presented them with a blue-blooded Irish setter.
Then, when Amaro went to Stanford, he thought about pre-med before switching to sports medicine and physical therapy.
But he's always been something of a risk-taker. Even though his dad had little idea of how well his son could play the game because he was away for so many summers, Amaro decided he'd try the family business. The Amaro baseball roots run deep. Before Ruben Amaro Sr. made it to the big leagues – he was an infielder on the '64 Phillies infamous for their late-September collapse – Amaro's grandfather, Santos, played and managed in his native Cuba as well as in Mexico, and his grandmother, Josefina, played on national teams in Mexico.
"My grandfather was real quiet, a very unassuming gentleman in every sense of the word,'' Amaro said. "He was very tall, very dark skin – you'd think he came from the Moors. My grandmother was a diminutive, lighter-skinned Mexican woman who was a chatterbox. They were night and day, an amazing contrast.''
Amaro's first memories of the big leagues go back to when his father was playing for the Angels. "My dad wore No. 5,'' he said. "My brother David and I, we had our own uniforms. David was No. 5½, I was No. 5¼.''
His dad became a Phillies coach, giving Amaro the chance to be a batboy in high school, first as a part-timer in the championship year of 1980, then full-time.
"One of my real favorites then was Bake McBride,'' Amaro said. "I thought Bake McBride was like the coolest cat around. He always had a smile, always had a good demeanor about him. He used to use real small bats, and let me use his bats.''
Amaro, it turns out, could swing a bat as well as fetch one. He was drafted in the 11th round by the Angels in 1987, made it to the big leagues by '91, and a year later was traded to the Phillies. He played for Jim Fregosi and the (Darren) Daulton gang when the Phillies won the pennant in 1993. Now 44, he's young enough to have played with the likes of Curt Schilling(notes) and Manny Ramirez(notes), with whom he was teammates for parts of two seasons in Cleveland, 1994 and '95.
A backup outfielder and pinch-hitter, Amaro returned to the Phillies for the final three years of his career. Recognizing that his playing days were numbered even though he was just 33, he approached general manager Ed Wade near the end of spring training in 1998 and said he'd love to stay with the Phillies in some capacity – scouting, coaching, instructor. Wade's response stunned him: How would you like to be my assistant, Wade asked. By the end of that season, Amaro decided it was time, and accepted.
He outlasted Wade in Philadelphia – Wade is the Houston Astros GM – and completed his apprenticeship under Pat Gillick, who has remained as a consultant after retiring after the Phillies won the World Series last fall. Within days of the victory parade, Amaro was sitting in the big chair, faced with an array of pressing business, including finding a replacement for departing free-agent left fielder Pat Burrell(notes).
Amaro signed Raul Ibanez(notes), who has been one of the season's early surprises, re-signed free-agent pitcher Jamie Moyer(notes), and locked up slugger Ryan Howard(notes), closer Brad Lidge(notes) and ace Hamels to long-term deals totaling $112 million. The core of this championship team, which also includes star second baseman Chase Utley(notes) and Rollins, should be together for some time.
And it is no small thing to the Phillies that Howard, Hamels, Utley and Rollins, as well as pitcher Brett Myers(notes), catcher Carlos Ruiz(notes) and a number of bullpen arms, all came up through the team's system.
"Many of our high-impact guys are our own guys,'' Amaro said, "and that's what it's going to take to sustain our success, developing our own players.''
Amaro has surrounded himself with veteran baseball people, bringing in assistants Scott Proefrock from Baltimore and Benny Looper from the Mariners, as well as promoting former Rays GM Chuck LaMar while retaining such respected holdovers as scouting director Marti Wolever and big league scouting director Gordon Lakey. Gillick, of course, remains a phone call away. Amaro doesn't have a full-time statistical analyst – the eyes remain at least as important as the numbers, which makes Amaro more old school than some of his contemporaries.
"One thing I've learned over the years,'' he said, "is to be aggressive without being stupid. There's a fine line. I like to be aggressive, but in this game you have to be patient, too, and take a breath. I've surrounded myself with people that take a breath better than I do.''
In Philadelphia, of course, booing comes as naturally as breathing, but this native son doesn't dwell on what happens if the Phillies slip. "I'm not interested in making my mark on this organization,'' said Amaro, whose father, now retired, has expressed the hope of being buried in a Phillies' uniform. "I'm not going to make every decision the right decision. But what I care about is sustaining our success.''