Philadelphia Phillies Owners: The Phantom Five

The Phillies may finally be serious ­contenders, but the franchise is still the losingest in sports history. For that we can blame a group of people we never see and never hear: the team’s (very) silent owners

By contrast, the Phillies are best known as the team that every charity, local business and City Hall wants to work with. Each week, it seems, the team sponsors another civic good deed, from green initiatives backed by Michael Nutter to Wiffle ball games for underprivileged kids. Chummy chamber of commerce parties and friendships with the Mayor and the MLB commissioner don’t lead to championships, though. Since the Phillies moved into Citizens Bank Park, their payroll is finally competitive, but in baseball, the only major sport without a salary cap, that only looks good in comparison to decades of woeful under-spending. When you buy a team in Philadelphia, there’s a pact that comes with the perks — especially when you’re handed more than a quarter-billion in city and state assistance to build your new home, complete with an owners’ box high above the third-base line, where losses are much easier to handle. Montgomery, his good friends in the front office and the Phantom Five are playing with some serious house money. It belongs to the tax-paying, seat-buying, jersey-wearing fans. Accountability to them is long overdue.

For the first time since 1993, there’s some swagger out there in the yard, thanks to players like Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, who are as Philadelphian in their hustle and lunch-pail style of leadership as the owners they play for aren’t. The Phillies were selling NL East Championship hats and tees as fast as they could make them last fall, but months later, they rewarded All Star Cole Hamels with a paltry $100,000 raise, and strong-armed Ryan Howard into arbitration that they lost. In an eyeblink, fan optimism gave way to portentous nightmares of Howard jacking home runs in a Red Sox jersey and Hamels no-hitting for the Yankees in the next few years. Who will be held accountable if this team is a shell of itself by 2012?

The answer is, no one. If you stop buying tickets, they’ll simply lower the payroll. If the Phillies fall into the MLB cellar, the league’s revenue-sharing plan will keep them afloat. If a newspaper columnist or sports-radio provocateur leads a campaign against them, Gentleman Dave will take the heat, smiling all along, while the owners he protects stay silent, hoping everyone will focus on something besides wins and losses and a 1,600 percent increase in the value of the team since they bought it. That’s the way the business of baseball is done in this town. Dare to dream of the day when change will come, Phillies fans. But as always, don’t get your hopes up.