Former GM Amaro starts over as first base coach

FORT MYERS, Fla. - The peculiar transition from general manager to first-base coach was bound to draw some attention during the early days of spring training, and sure enough, the New York Times and USA Today converged on the Boston Red Sox spring-training camp early Saturday morning to talk to Ruben Amaro Jr. about it.

Occasionally you'll see a general manager go down on the field to become the manager - the Pope (Paul Owens) replaced Pat Corrales with the Phillies in first place in 1983 and Frank Lucchesi with the Phillies in last in 1972 - but the move from the plush front-office boxes behind home plate to the relative obscurity of the first-base box is indeed rare, if not entirely unprecedented.

But this is Ruben Amaro Jr., a baseball lifer who by his own admission has had a charmed existence, so we should not be surprised by anything. The move from GM to first-base coach, after all, is no stranger than a player retiring and immediately becoming an assistant general manager, which is what happened after the 1998 season.

That transition, of course, worked out quite nicely for Amaro and you could argue that it went pretty well for the Phillies, too. Good luck finding a majority of people in Philadelphia to make that case, but Amaro remains proud of his work in Philadelphia even as he embarks on his new career with Boston.

"I'll let the record speak for itself," he said. "I was involved in the baseball operations long before we won the World Series and long after."

He was, in fact, a member of the Phillies front office for 17 seasons. The team compiled a record of 1,407-1,324 during that period. There were five division titles, two National League pennants, one World Series title and only six losing seasons. That's a nice resumé, but he'll be remembered most as the guy in charge during the franchise's great fall and he's OK with that.

"It's an occupational hazard, man," he said Saturday after going through his second workout with the Red Sox. "When you're the GM of an organization or president of baseball operations, your job is to run baseball and if things don't go well, then it should land squarely on you. That's why we get paid what we get paid. It's part of the pressure and the prestige of the job. I don't blame anybody else and, at the same time, I take a lot of pride in the things that we did in my time there as a GM."

The Phillies did return to the World Series in Amaro's first season as GM and won a franchise-record 102 regular-season games in 2011, but he is also blamed for negotiating long-term contracts that went bad and letting the farm system's talent dry up. Most of the credit for the good times went to his predecessor, Pat Gillick, and most of the blame landed on Amaro. He deserved some of it and did not always help his case with public comments that at times rubbed players and fans the wrong way.

If there is to be vindication in the eyes of the fans, it will come in the future based on the verdicts of the trades Amaro made on his way out the door. When reminded that he is being lauded for the prospect haul he brought in on the Cole Hamels trade, Amaro laughed but remained humble, saying that the scouting department deserved the credit. It was the kind of reaction we did not see often enough during his time as GM.

"Listen, everything that we did was a team effort," Amaro said. "It always was. I didn't make the trades by myself. I believed in bringing a lot of people into the circle. I enjoyed my time with those guys because I liked to give them opportunities to contribute and they deserve a lot of credit for the things that were accomplished there."

The day he was fired, Amaro opted against speaking to the media. In fact, until Saturday, he had not spoken at all about his firing and even then he was reluctant to relive the past.

"The decision wasn't about me," Amaro said. "It was about the Phillies making a change. I have great respect for Andy MacPhail and John Middleton and the Bucks [Jim and Pete]. Andy is a very intelligent man and he's had great success and, like I said, I hope he continues to have great success because my heart will always bleed for the Phillies."

Amaro, by his calculations, spent 35 of his 51 years going to Clearwater with the Phillies in some capacity: son of a coach, bat boy, player, assistant GM and GM. This was the first time in 20 years he reported to a destination other than Clearwater.

It's also the first time since 1998 he has been in a uniform and he's taking his job as first-base coach and outfield instructor very seriously. He dropped 15 pounds in the offseason and threw batting practice and hit fungos at a friend's baseball facility in Bucks County to get ready. Although he threw righthanded during his playing career, he is pitching batting practice lefthanded.

"I threw three or four times at home and my right arm was bothering me, so I've been giving it a rest," he said. "I was originally a lefthanded thrower as a kid. I eat lefthanded. Right now I'll throw lefthanded, but if my arm gets well I'll throw either way."

Amaro admitted that "he feels like a kid again" being on the field, but he did not close the door on someday returning to a front-office job.

"My goals are more short-term right now," he said. "I'm trying to help the Boston Red Sox win and be a championship club. I'm open-minded about my future. If it keeps me on the field, then great. If it takes me off the field and into a front office, that is something I wouldn't want to close the door on, either."

He figures to be doing something in baseball for a long, long time and none of us should be surprised by where he ends up after his next turn.

bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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