Bill Conlin | Phils need to scale their salary wall

MR. MONTGOMERY, tear down this wall.

Behind the symbolic wall separating a limited partnership that owns the Phillies and fans yearning for a second World Series championship are some sound business practices.

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Phils' dynamic nucleus: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard.

Bill Giles rounded up the original partners who bought the ballclub for $31 million from the Carpenter family in 1981. Bob Carpenter's father paid $400,000 in 1943 for the bankrupt Phillies and handed the Shibe Park keys to his 27-year-old son.

Giles stated on numerous occasions that the Phillies neither made nor lost a lot of money. In good years, such as 1983 and 1993, the Phillies turned a modest profit. In bad years, losses were kept to a minimum by cost-saving measures that included downsizing the organization's once-envied minor league system. Giles pulled his scouts out of the Caribbean and the Phillies began drafting older, cheaper

college players.

Montgomery has been guarding the wall since replacing Giles a decade ago.

Behind it, the centerpiece is a filing cabinet containing the club's financial records. When it comes to secrecy, the books of major league baseball teams are up there with the arming codes for the nation's nukes.

But when Dave Montgomery says the Phillies' payroll for 2008 will be in the $105 million range, pay close attention. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School does not turn out many fools. Under Montgomery in the club's crack money department is an array of Ivy League-educated execs. Senior vice president, business and finance, Jerry Clothier is a Wharton MBA.

Senior vice president, administration and operations, Michael Stiles is a Penn man who got his law degree at Villanova. Bill Webb, the Phillies' general counsel, is a Dartmouth man with a law degree from the University of Michigan. Richard Deats, vice president, Phillies enterprises, has Penn Charter and Penn on his resume.

On the field side, general manager-in-waiting Ruben Amaro Jr. went from Penn Charter to

Stanford, where he majored in human biology. These guys

define "Old Boys' Network."

Also behind the wall is a window of opportunity that waxes and wanes as ballplayers come and go. That window once was wide and long-lasting before free agency. Clubs lucky enough to have a franchise player or two generally held onto them. The names Campanella, Hodges, Robinson, Reese, Snider, Furillo and Cox graced Brooklyn box scores for the better part of a decade. The only position in flux was leftfield.

For long stretches of their past, the Phillies were devoid of a "franchise" player. Whenever they got one, he didn't stay long. Grover Cleveland Alexander and Chuck Klein both were traded out of different eras for operating cash.

Finally, there were Richie

Ashburn and Robin Roberts . . .

Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton . . . Darren Daulton and

Lenny Dykstra. And now . . .

The breathlessly anticipated 2008 season will be Dave Montgomery's eighth in a row as the CEO of a contender. But the Phillies have only last season's East Division title to show for winning records in every year but 80-81 in 2002.

Now, they have the strongest nucleus in club history, fronted by three - count 'em - franchise players. And not just any old franchise players, but back-to-back National League MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Waiting in the wings is superb second baseman and high- energy gamer Chase Utley, capable of winning MVP, a batting title and leading almost any category. If he can stay off the disabled list, you can add superb young lefthander Cole Hamels

to that franchise list.

This kind of talent demands a financial commitment equal to the skills of Howard, Rollins,

Utley and Hamels.

It gets tricky here for the man guarding the wall. In a sport that has no salary cap, the Phillies establish a budget each year and pretty much follow it. At $7 million next year, Rollins will be grossly underpaid by the standards of the market. He is signed through 2010 with a club option for 2011. Utley is signed to an $85 million contract through 2013. Howard earned a piddling $900,000 last season and is now about to find out the worth of the 105 homers he hit in his first and second full seasons. Hamels earned $400,000 last season and is not arbitration eligible.

When the Angels lavished a 5-year, $90 million deal on 32-year-old free agent Torii Hunter, any hopes that the Phillies would be able to strike a deal that would keep centerfielder Aaron Rowand here were dashed. Why? Because they won't go that many years for any free agent. Some baseball men view GM Pat Gillick's late foray into the Mike Lowell sweepstakes with suspicion. Neither Lowell nor the World Series champion Red Sox blinked at the supposed 4 years for $50 million Phils' offer, and Lowell took $37.5 million for 3 years.

As Montgomery guards the wall, he is merely doing what this ownership group has done since Giles assembled the gentlemen sportsmen: setting a budget that will neither make nor lose a lot of money. The apparent $2.2 billion windfall that recently came to No. 3 limited partner John S. Middleton is no factor whatever. And since nobody has seen the books of Middleton's family-held companies, that

enormous sum is no more than

a gaudy number.

Sure, the Phillies are now worth in the neighborhood of $500 million. So what? But if it sounds as if these partners are just in it for the money, consider this: In 1981, shares of Berkshire Hathaway Class A stock sold for about $500 a share. Had the Giles group sunk $31 million into BH/A, they would have held 62,000 shares. BH/A closed at $135,000 a share yesterday. Giles and his partners would be sitting on a fortune worth $8.37 billion. Meanwhile . . .

Mr. Montgomery, tear down this wall . . . *