The press conference was a spectacle, a piece of stagecraft that married a marvelous era from the franchise’s past, its thrilling present, and its hopeful future. The franchise had just acquired the biggest and, at that moment, highest-paid star in Major League Baseball, and so the event would be less an announcement than a celebration, a heralding of what had happened and what was ahead.

But George Steinbrenner wasn’t there for it. When the Yankees held their introductory press conference for Alex Rodriguez in February 2004, they held it at Yankee Stadium, and they made sure that Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, and Reggie Jackson were on hand.

Steinbrenner was 1,200 miles to the south, at the Yankees’ minor-league complex in Tampa, watching on TV. The trade to get Rodriguez, Steinbrenner said that day, according to the Associated Press, was “probably right up there with Reggie. I’m not going to say number two. How can you argue when you get arguably the best player in baseball?” He just said it over the phone, away from the cameras and the trumpets.

A sign of influence

The press conference was a spectacle, a piece of stagecraft that married a marvelous era from the franchise’s past, its thrilling present, and its hopeful future. The franchise had just acquired the biggest and, at that moment, highest-paid star in Major League Baseball, and so the event would be less an announcement than a celebration, a heralding of what had happened and what was ahead.

John Middleton was right in the middle of it. The Phillies held their introductory press conference for Bryce Harper on March 2, at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. They set up two long tables, draped with red tablecloths, atop the park’s first-base dugout, and they made sure that Harper, general manager Matt Klentak, and Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, were on hand.

Middleton, the team’s principal owner, sat at the tables with them, to their right. The negotiation that culminated in Harper’s 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, Middleton said, had played out over three long meetings the previous weekend in Las Vegas, Harper’s hometown. “I came away from that convinced that everybody wanted this to work,” Middleton said. “When you sense that commitment from the other side, you just kind of push through, put your shoulder down.” He said it right there, with Harper and Boras looking on.

John Middleton was front and center, right next to general manager Matt Klentak during Bryce Harper's introductory press conference with the Phillies.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
John Middleton was front and center, right next to general manager Matt Klentak during Bryce Harper's introductory press conference with the Phillies.

Middleton’s presence was a sign not merely of how important the Harper signing was for the Phillies. It was an indication of Middleton’s increased public visibility and influence within the organization, too. He is not Steinbrenner. No owner in Major League Baseball is or could be. No one has the combination of personality and combustibility and market size that Steinbrenner had. There is no Larry David impersonation of Middleton in the works as part of a Netflix series.

But this winter, Middleton was happy to fill the void in baseball’s marketplace that Steinbrenner once filled: as the owner everyone knew would pay any price to put his team in position to win a World Series, because he had declared that he would. His willingness to spend stupidly made him the owner everyone, from executives to agents to players to fans, had to watch and wonder: What will he do? How far will he go?

Around here, maybe the appropriate parallel for whom Middleton has become is Ed Snider, who in the NHL’s pre-salary-cap era seemed to regard each offseason as his own personal challenge to win. Chris Gratton, Jeremy Roenick, Danny Briere, Ilya Bryzgalov: Some of those splashy acquisitions worked better than others, but there was never a doubt about what Snider’s aim was. He wanted to win a Stanley Cup — tomorrow, if such a thing were possible — and the sight of him sitting at a dais after a major free-agent signing or, eventually and always, a coaching change served as an easy and unnecessary reminder of who was in charge of the Flyers’ fortunes.

Middleton has taken on that same role and persona, and it’s tempting to trace it back to the aftermath of the Phillies’ loss in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series.

Then, in a story that has now grown famous and that would sound apocryphal if you had not witnessed it, he knelt in front of Ryan Howard’s locker in Yankee Stadium’s visiting clubhouse and told Howard, “I want my [bleeping] trophy back.” For the next five to six years, the Phillies chased that trophy to the point of absurdity, banking that even as they aged and battled injuries, the core players from those NL East-championship teams could recapture their previous greatness.

John Middleton has spent a decade trying to bring the Phillies back to greatness.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
John Middleton has spent a decade trying to bring the Phillies back to greatness.

A different pose

It was, of course, a bad bet, and it forced Middleton into a stance that had to feel so uncomfortable to him. He had to wait because his team had to rebuild, and it’s worth noting that, as recently as the winter of 2017-18, Middleton was preaching about the value of relative prudence and patience.

Go back, for instance, to the day that the Phillies announced that they had agreed to a three-year, $60 million contract with Carlos Santana. The signing had been a bolt from the blue. Did it mean the Phillies were back to spending more money not on their organization infrastructure, but on the major-league roster?

“As long as I’m seeing that kind of progress, I’m OK,” Middleton said then. “I mean, I’m happy. I know, ultimately, it needs to be on the field. I get that. But I also know that, in stark contrast to ’93, which was six, seven, eight guys either having career years or virtually career years, you can’t build a sustainable team that way. That just happened to be lightning in a bottle, and I don’t want that either.

“So this notion that we just go out there and sign this player or this player, that’s just wasting time and resources. We need to be building the organization and let the organization build the farm system and let the farm system develop the players and let the major-league coaching staff coach the young players when they get up there. That’s the way you’re going to win consistently.”

That’s a much different pose from the one he struck as he sat there proudly next to Klentak, Boras, and Harper just this month. Maybe it was always going to happen this way, on this timeline. Maybe John Middleton just had to wait a year to be the owner he really wanted to be, to create and be at the center of a spectacle that has substance, that finally wins him and the Phillies that trophy they’ve chased for too long.

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