It was nearly eight years ago to the day when Andy MacPhail stood behind a podium and outlined his immediate plans to fix a once-proud baseball organization that was in a 10-year tailspin.
"I have to watch and I'm going to have to read and I'm going to have to listen," MacPhail said in June 2007 when he was named Orioles president of baseball operations.
This past week, MacPhail, sounding every bit as assured, vowed to do those same three things as he accepted another significant challenge: resurrecting the Philadelphia Phillies, an organization in steep decline.
The parallels between the rebuilding project that MacPhail took over in 2007 and the one he was hired last week to lead are striking. MacPhail, the president-in-waiting of the Phillies, enters the picture at the midpoint of a lost season, ideal timing for a man who has been out of the game and needs to get reacclimated before charting an important course.
An interim manager is in place and the general manager remains. The Phillies farm system is thin, and their major league roster is aging, though it does contain one significant trade chip: a talented left-handed pitcher. Citizens Bank Park, once one of the toughest tickets in the league, is sparsely populated on game nights as a passionate fan base starts to turn its lonely eyes toward football season.
To Orioles fans, now 3 ½ seasons removed from long-standing frustration and despair, the circumstances that MacPhail now confronts should all sound familiar.
"I'll tell you this, standing up at that podium in Baltimore being introduced and saying that I was going to watch, listen, learn and read, I ended up doing things very differently that offseason than I might have imagined sitting up at that podium," MacPhail said in an interview with The Sun on Thursday. "I don't think I was standing up at that podium thinking that I was going to move [Erik] Bedard at the end of the year. That was something that I understood had to happen, but that was only because I spent July, August and September with that team. Then, I figured it out."
MacPhail is hoping the next three months with the Phillies — he's serving as an adviser to team president Pat Gillick before taking over for Gillick after the season — brings similar revelations. There is, after all, much to decide as the Phillies have baseball's worst record and were just swept in four games by the National League Central's cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Brewers.
A lot of questions
Unlike in Baltimore where MacPhail took over for Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette in running all baseball operations, his new job is more broadly focused. He'll be tasked with overseeing business and baseball matters, a job that could spare MacPhail from some of the general manager tasks that have worn on him in the past. But fixing the Phillies on the field will certainly be the focus.
"He's an information-gatherer and that's very important because any information is critical to making the right decisions," Gillick said last week.
The Phillies need a permanent manager after Ryne Sandberg's decision to resign, leaving Pete Mackanin to run the team in the interim. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s contract expires at the end of the year and the expectation is that MacPhail will hire a replacement. Then, MacPhail will have to overhaul a roster that carries too many prohibitive contracts and not enough high-end young talent.
Pre-deadline trades this month of ace southpaw Cole Hamels and closer Jonathan Papelbon could jump-start the rebuilding process, similarly to what MacPhail accomplished in trading Bedard to the Seattle Mariners in February 2008 for a package that included Adam Jones and Chris Tillman.
"He said at the press conference — and he was right — that [improving] isn't linear. What you try to do is acquire as much talent as you can, upgrade everywhere. That's No. 1," said Duquette, now an analyst for MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM Radio. "Usually, these organizations are devoid of talent. … There's kind of a four- or five-pronged approach to acquiring talent and spending money, but it takes time. You look at these other rebuilds and it's taken four or five years. That's generally the guideline."
Wanting to spend more time with his father who passed away in 2012, MacPhail left the Orioles a couple of weeks before his contract expired in 2011. He has spent the past three-plus years traveling around the world, visiting places like Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. He and his wife, Lark, embraced a lifestyle that the grind of the baseball season never allowed.
"I knew once I walked away that this game will march on very nicely without you, thank you very much," MacPhail said. "I knew there was no guarantee that any opportunity would ever present itself going forward and I was comfortable with that. But 3 ½ years had gone by and I did get to do all of those things that I wanted to do. I wasn't so much restless, but I was open to an opportunity."
But why this job? Why take on another rebuild? MacPhail is 62 years old and he has spent well over 30 years as a high-ranking MLB executive. You would have thought that he wanted a chance for much more immediate gratification.
"An opportunity came by which I thought was about as good of an opportunity as I could ever anticipate," MacPhail said. The job is "not necessarily the 24/7 daily focus of a GM. It's overseeing both sides of an operation, which gives you a little more distance. That was attractive to me."
All about Baltimore
MacPhail was the general manager of the Minnesota Twins when they won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. During a 12-year stint as primarily the president and CEO of the Chicago Cubs, the team made the playoffs twice. Yet, he admits that it's been "odd" over the past couple of weeks to hear the fixation on his time with the Orioles, rather than on his other stops.
From 2007 to 2011, MacPhail's Orioles compiled a 307-432 record and finished last in the American League East over each of his final four seasons. When he left, few Oriole fans were sad to see him go. The optimism of his arrival and a new beginning had long since waned.
However, the team's success following his departure has reflected well on his rebuilding efforts. Much of the Orioles' nucleus that has led the team to the playoffs in two of the past three years — a group that includes first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Manny Machado — were either acquired or signed by MacPhail.
MacPhail, though, deflected praise to current Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter for taking the team to another level. MacPhail, who hired Showalter in July 2010, said one of the greatest lessons that he learned in Baltimore was the value of a dynamic field manager.
"In some respects, [the Orioles' success] made it easier for me to not get back into baseball," MacPhail said. "I can look and think to myself, 'Well, we did what we had to do in Baltimore. We did a pretty good job in our 12 years in Chicago.' I would have liked to have gotten those last five outs in '03 and gotten to a World Series. And we did fine in Minnesota. In a lot of respects, you can just sort of say, 'It was a 35-year career. It was a lot of fun and I'm having a lot of fun doing this stuff I'm doing now.'"
But MacPhail couldn't resist another challenge. From 2007 to 2011, the Phillies averaged 95 wins per year and went to two World Series, winning in 2008 and losing in 2009. Those days seem so long ago. The Phillies entered the weekend on pace to lose 108 games and entrenched at the bottom of an NL East that is loaded with the game's most prized commodity: quality starting pitching.
MacPhail acknowledged all the challenges the Phillies face, but he feels that the Orioles job was a more uphill battle. The division-rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were powerhouses and the Tampa Bay Rays were morphing from a laughingstock into a perennial 90-plus win team. Back then, teams were playing division foes 18 times a year, too.
"It became so obvious that a rebuild was necessary," MacPhail said, looking back at his first season with the Orioles. "The only difficulty was that it's one thing to announce a rebuild after you've had five first-place finishes. But it's a hard thing to announce when you've had 10 consecutive seasons under .500."
Jim Duquette expects MacPhail to follow the exact same blueprint that he used in rebuilding the Orioles.
"If you're the Phillies ownership and fan base, wouldn't you want it that way? OK, he didn't see it out until the very end to take the Orioles to the postseason. Somebody else did," Duquette said. "But over the last three years, the Orioles have had the second-best winning percentage in baseball behind the Nationals. If you tell Phillies fans, you have the opportunity to do something along those lines, do you think they'd take it? I'd say yeah. They may want it a little sooner, but that's the reality of the situation."
A longtime baseball man
Former Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who had been out of baseball since 2011, was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies last week as a special assistant to team president Pat Gillick. MacPhail will take over Gillick's role following the season, the latest stop for the 62-year-old longtime baseball executive.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Team; Years; Top title during tenure;
Houston Astros; 1982-84; Assistant general manager
Minnesota Twins; 1984-94; General manager
Chicago Cubs; 1994-2006; President/CEO
Baltimore Orioles; 2007-11; President of baseball operations
Philadelphia Phillies; 2015; Special assistant to president
Philadelphia Phillies; 2016-; President