Matthew H. Rusk
HE’S SHOPPING at the Langhorne Barnes & Noble in late November with his two young daughters — a moment when Ruben Amaro Jr. would prefer to be left alone. The other shoppers oblige. But not his cell phone. When it rings, he picks up. When you’re the general manager of the Phillies, you’re always on call.
Players ring in the middle of holiday dinners. Agents make last-minute offers well past midnight. Scouts with urgent tips interrupt a New Year’s Eve party. For three years now, Amaro has held the keys to Philadelphia’s sports kingdom in the palm of his hand, and the keeper of the keys has to be ready. Always — especially in this town, where sports aren’t just a metaphor for our well-being. They are our well-being, and for Amaro, a single phone call can mean the difference between coronation and exile.
At the moment, though, he’s not thinking about calls, or Major League deals, or the kinds of earth-shattering acquisitions that would make his reputation. Right now, Amaro’s with Sophia and Andrea, ages eight and 12. (He’s been divorced from their mother, who lives in Bucks County, for 10 years.) His daughters are where he goes for something simpler.
And then his phone rings.
It’s Darek Braunecker, agent for ace pitcher and Philly expat Cliff Lee, a free agent shopping around the league for a new home.
“Hey Ruben. Got a minute? I’ve got Cliff and Kristen here in my office on speaker,” he tells Amaro.
The next voice Amaro hears isn’t Cliff’s. It’s Kristen, his wife.
“Ruben, you broke my heart once,” she tells him. “Please don’t break my heart again.”
WHEN RUBEN AMARO JR. got this job three years ago, the last thing he wanted to do was break hearts. The Phillies had just won their first World Series in 28 years, and the confetti on Broad Street was barely swept up when Amaro was charged with keeping watch over a team that his predecessors, Ed Wade and Pat Gillick, had taken almost two decades to assemble into champions.
And so far, he’s done a splendid job. He brought us to a second World Series in 2009, kept us in the playoffs in 2010, and even acquired two of the top pitchers in the game, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt.
Then, on December 15th, Amaro blew up the world of baseball, pulling the most epic of rabbits out of his hat when he stole from the Yankees what they wanted so badly, the player Amaro himself had traded away a year earlier: Cliff Lee. With that, Amaro has assembled one of the greatest pitching rotations in baseball history — potentially, at any rate. And for this, we have crowned him king.
But here’s the rub: His wheeler-dealer success — the Phillies just signed him to a four-year contract extension — only serves to ratchet up the pressure, because come October, Amaro knows he had better be riding on another float down Broad Street. If not, things are going to get ugly. Fast.