CLEARWATER, Fla. — Leigh Middleton didn’t know quite what to expect when her husband and her father-in-law bought into the Phillies in 1993. There would be functions and events and … games? She had been the wife of John Middleton for 15 years, and both are Main Lion scions, so she had long since mastered proper behavior in every setting. It was in her blood.
But a baseball game isn’t afternoon tea, so these were uncharted social waters.
She was relieved when she called her parents, Jack and Terri Powers.
“I said to my parents, when I first started coming to games: ‘Mom, it’s like a family!’ ” Leigh said.
She told this story March 13, minutes after free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta held his introductory news conference at Phillies spring training. Arrieta, an eight-year veteran, a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series champion, was still giving interviews about his $75 million contract. He was shielded and shepherded by a PR staffer from the team. There were red, white and blue balloons, and TV cameras, and a half-dozen handlers from his agent’s office. It was his moment. His world.
His wife, Brittany, sat nearby with her brother and her two small children. Brittany looked a bit overwhelmed. That’s where Leigh Middleton came in.
She walked over. Introduced herself. Shook hands. Within minutes she and Brittany were chatting like old friends: about schools; about neighborhoods, about the life the Arrietas would lead away from Citizens Bank Park.
This was not a paid emissary from the team’s administrative staff. This was the owner’s wife.
“That was pretty nice,” Brittany said.
“I want them to feel comfortable,” explained Middleton, whose quiet deference nicely balances her husband’s more assertive persona. “It’s hard for them to come into a new situation and find a place to stay. I feel empathy toward them. What the Phillies have done so well for so many years is to make people feel like part of the family.”
This is undeniably true. When Cliff Lee signed as a free agent in 2010, he famously cited the Phillies’ family atmosphere as a main reason he spurned similar offers by the Yankees and Rangers.
Arrieta and Lee share Scott Boras as an agent. Arrieta did his own homework, calling friends on the Phillies like reliever Tommy Hunter, as well as front-office executives who had been with him when he played for Baltimore, to get a sense of what he and his family would experience over the next three years. Clearly, the Phillies’ cozy environment helped persuade him to join a team that had only 66 wins in 2017.
“It did,” Arrieta said. “We knew what we were getting into. Talking to guys who have played here. Scott has players who have played here for a long time. Getting that inside information really drew us to this organization. We appreciate that as players.”
‘We are family’
The Pirates rode that song to a championship in 1979, but the Phillies have operated under that philosophy for decades — for better or worse. They routinely rehire high-profile employees they once fired and place them in influential positions. For instance, they dismissed manager Larry Bowa and general manager Ed Wade in 2004 and 2005, respectively, but brought Bowa back as a coach in 2013 — he now is a front-office adviser — and rehired Wade as a scout from 2011 to 2017, when he was dismissed. When they fired manager Charlie Manuel in 2013 he didn’t even need his ID pass recoded; he was hired as an adviser a few months later.
The Phillies treat alumni like royalty, and they treat everyone’s family like their own. That can form a bulwark against new ideas — the Phillies admit that they were catastrophically slow to adapt analytics, and that they were just as resistant to replenish their roster after 2012. But new-age general manager Matt Klentak, tasked with dragging the club into the 21st century, eagerly employs the franchise’s one consistent drawing card.
“The incredible family culture this organization has had for many, many years,” Klentak said. “Especially when you’re recruiting someone who has a family like this, when you have the ability to market that is really important.”
That’s doubly true when the family operates like Arrieta’s. Jake and Brittany were in the same classes in first and second grade in Austin, Texas, and they began dating when they were juniors in neighboring high schools. She has been his co-pilot over the course of his challenging college and professional career, and she relishes the warmth and stability the contract with the Phillies offers.
“My priorities are different from Jake’s when we look at teams,” Brittany said. “One was that teams take care of families. That’s a huge thing for Jake, too; to not have to worry about me and the kids when he’s gone on the road, or when we’re in Philly, at the same stadium as him. He can focus solely on baseball. That was a huge asset for any team we were looking at.’ ”
Keeping it real
John Middleton assumed control of the Phillies’ operations in 2015, as team president David Montgomery, one of the minority owners, battled jaw cancer. Middleton hired Andy MacPhail to replace Montgomery as president and told MacPhail to rebuild the franchise. That meant less emphasis on loyalty and nostalgia, more emphasis on analytics and sports science.
But Middleton’s assumption of control didn’t mean the Phillies would become a cold, faceless corporation. Montgomery remains involved with the team as its chairman, and the club holds him in such high regard that, two weeks ago, it named its indoor training facility in Clearwater after him. Middleton has made sure to retain a measure of the welcoming atmosphere built by Montgomery, and by Bill Giles before him.
“Cliff Lee took less money to come here,” Middleton said. “Cliff said, publicly, it literally got to a point where it was down to three teams. He turned to Kristin, his wife, and said, ‘Honey, I’m going to make a lot of money no matter what the decision is. What’s right for you?’ ”
Middleton is the unabashed face of the franchise now. On March 13 he wore a button-down Phillies shirt, a burnished bronze Phillies belt buckle, and, believe it or not, Phillies boat shoes.
Montgomery was just as committed, if not as decked out in logos, when he oversaw the two most significant free-agent signings in Phillies history: Lee, before the 2011 season, and Jim Thome, before the 2003 season. The Phillies were coming off their third consecutive National League East title, and they got Lee at a discount. The Thome signing is more similar to Arrieta’s, since they were a losing club in 2002 and they paid Thome more than his market value. But Big Jim appreciated the club’s family atmosphere then as much as Big Jake appreciates it now.
“This is a leap of faith for Jake, just as it was for Jim Thome back then,” Middleton said. “It’s a critical part of the decision. That’s a vote of confidence in the organization. Jake has recognized the things we try to bring to an organization and their families. And he said: ‘Look. This is the place I want to be.’ ”