Pat Gillick never really left

Pat Gillick. (Michael Perez/Staff file photo)

To Phillies fans hoping desperately for a change in the team's direction - and, yes, by now everyone knows exactly what you think that first change should be - the sad news that team president David Montgomery requires a leave of absence while he deals with his recovery from cancer surgery was tempered somewhat by the appointment of Pat Gillick as the club's "interim caretaker."

In this town, Gillick is associated with success, which is the same association he enjoys in the other three cities - Toronto, Baltimore, and Seattle - in which he was general manager of the local baseball team.

Gillick came to Philadelphia in the fall of 2005, and when he stepped aside three seasons later, his final ride to the ballpark as the GM took place near the head of a ticker-tape parade down Broad Street. Pull that off and people remember you fondly.

To be honest, Gillick took over the job at an opportune moment. Not many general managers are fired after winning 88 games, but that is what happened to Ed Wade. Gillick assumed control of a team that had a very talented, young core and said that all he really needed to do was figure out a way to win five more games a season. To his credit, that's exactly what he did, and so his paper is always going to be good in Philly.

The notion that Gillick will return to the scene and say, "Whoa, what the heck is going on around here?" is very wrong, however. He hasn't really left. Although Ruben Amaro Jr. was promoted to GM, Gillick has stayed in close touch, participating in weekly conference calls with the baseball operations department, talking privately with Amaro a couple of more times a week, and advising him on all the decisions that have been made.

It's worth remembering that during Amaro's tenure, compared to Gillick's, the Phillies went to more postseasons (3 to 2) and the same number of World Series (1). The difference is Gillick's team got to play the Rays, Amaro's had to play the Yankees, and then Amaro was the one who stuck around after the party ended.

That's not to say there haven't been a lot of mistakes made - plenty, as a matter of fact - just that Amaro didn't make them in a vacuum. He was advised by Gillick and others, and the moves were green-lighted by Montgomery.

"For the most part, we're basically on the same page," Gillick said this week after he joined the team in Atlanta for an extended look-see.

So, understand from the outset that Pat Gillick is not going to fire Amaro. It could be that some segment of the silent ownership group is growing antsy enough to order a change - and John S. Middleton does seem to be moving toward that critical mass - but there won't be a major change by Gillick's hand. For one thing, he knows better than most how the cycle of winning is usually followed by a less pleasant corollary.

For instance, the Blue Jays, who went to the World Series twice and the postseason four times in Gillick's final five seasons, didn't finish higher than third for 11 years after he left and still haven't made the postseason. The Orioles went to the American League Championship Series twice under Gillick, but then had 13 straight losing seasons after he moved on. The Mariners, who also went twice to the ALCS, had losing seasons in four of five years after Gillick and are still waiting for their next postseason appearance.

Pat Gillick can take your team and make it a winner, but he hasn't figured out better than anyone else how to keep that success from eroding. What happened in Toronto, Baltimore, and Seattle has also happened in Philadelphia, and it would have happened to some extent if Pat Gillick, Ruben Amaro, or Branch Rickey had been the general manager.

Gillick would have overpaid to keep the stars together, too - a group that won 102 games in 2011 before age and injury derailed it. He was a very good general manager, a Hall of Famer, but he wasn't perfect - unless you've forgotten Adam Eaton, Geoff Jenkins, Abraham Nunez, and Freddy Garcia. Gillick would have done a lot of the same things and would be waiting now, just like Amaro, for the expiration date to pass on those moves.

"If you said at one point, would you like to have Ryan Howard and Jimmy [Rollins] and [Carlos] Ruiz and [Chase] Utley on the field, [you] would have said, 'Yeah, I want them on the field.' That's the right decision. Maybe we pushed them a little too far, but as far as identifying the players to be on the field . . . we made the right decisions," Gillick said.

He said "we," and meant it. It was still "we" after he went behind the scenes, and remains the same now that he is back in a more visible role. Nothing has really changed for Pat Gillick, except one very important thing. The team doesn't need just five more wins this time.