I Hate Myself for Loving the Jonathan Papelbon Signing
Let me get this out of the way right now: I’ve loved the Phillies with an unwavering passion since, as a newly minted seven-year-old in 1980, I watched Tug McGraw strike out Willie Wilson to lock down the Phils’ first-ever World F. Championship. (My second-grade brain somehow interpreted Tugger’s vertical leap for joy as a heroic stab at a line drive to record the final out; I held on to this mistaken belief for an embarrassingly long time.) Then there were 27 years of awful peppered with brief blips of hope dashed in crushing defeat. Point is, Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske to seal the World Series in 2008 was, for me, like the happy conclusion of a long, cruel play; the exorcising of a particularly nasty demon.
I’m a lifer.
Which is why I find myself conflicted about the affairs of the Local Nine—specifically this whole Jonathan Papelbon/Ryan Madson business. The financial prudence of committing $50 million to a not-old-but-not-young relief pitcher who throws a lot of arm-taxing split-finger fastballs notwithstanding, the homer in me is beyond thrilled that the Phils had the stones and the wherewithal to go out and sign the big-name closer on the market to a holy-fuck contract just days into the free agency period. That this all happened mere hours after sticking it to Scott Boras—the agent who, with J.D. Drew, famously screwed the Phils all those years ago—in that weird deal/no-deal with incumbent closer Ryan Madson, was extra gratifying.
(Though, if we’re being honest, I was really excited by the prospect of signing Madson—a truly deserving home-grown sort—to a big deal; it wasn’t that long ago that free agents departing the Phillies would talk to anyone—including Japanese teams and slow-pitch softball leagues—before considering a return trip to Veterans Stadium, aka ACL Memorial Field).
The act of inking Papelbon was that of a big-market team with a recent history of success—playing in a cash-cow stadium filled nightly by a rabid fanbase—flexing its muscles, throwing caution and financial wisdom to the wind, and making the big, market-setting splash. “Fuck yeah!” I thought. “Amazing!”
The current era is, without question, the best in team history—on the field and, in some respects, off it. And I’m completely weirded out by it.
Part of it’s because I’m just not used to rooting for the overdog. But mostly, it’s because this kind of stuff is exactly what the Yankees—the free-spending, unbearable-in-victory/ungracious-in-defeat Goliaths to the north—would do.
The Bronx Bombers’ most recent run of dominance, going back to the mid-’90s, was based on a homegrown core, not unlike the Phillies’ recent run. The Yanks’ then buttressed their empire with high-priced mercenary after high-priced, PED-taking mercenary after high-priced, PED-taking, centaur-obsessed mercenary. And each time Brian Cashman, George Steinbrenner and his progeny open the checkbook for another precedent-smashing deal (that is sure to outlive the signee’s usefulness, but who cares because the Yankees are unique in their ability to eat their mistakes), the collective teeth-gnashing in the baseball world echoes across the continent.
Not that the Yankees’ free spending has necessarily rewarded them; since 2000, they have won an un-Yankee-like one World Series. Yet the Phils seem eager to follow their playbook. In the last three seasons, they have acquired studs Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee (twice!), Hunter Pence and Papelbon (so far). These moves, while popular, have come at the cost of considerable minor league talent, draft picks and a lot of freaking money. Meanwhile, unwise and/or unnecessary commitments to Ryan Howard (whom I love, but his contract is right out of a Coleridge epic), Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and Placido Polanco likely robbed them of the ability to resign Jayson Werth and possibly Jimmy Rollins. For all of their expenditures—in treasure and talent—the Phillies have drifted progressively farther from that elusive third title (all caveats about the unpredictability of short series apply).
I contend that Yankees fans feel no real joy when their team wins—only the smug, soulless sense of having gotten what they’d paid for. And when they lose, well, they’re bitter, their belief in a system they thought they’d gamed is shaken. That’s not fun. And I fear that’s where Phillies Nation is drifting.
In order to beat the Yankees, we oughtn’t have to be the Yankees.
Conventional wisdom suggests that come 2013, when the Phils are paying in the neighborhood of $95 million for five aging players, it will be dark times indeed. Which could very well be why the Phillies are spending like there’s no tomorrow. No one was more stoked by the Phils pulling the rug out from under the Yankees to sign Cliff Lee. And look, Jonathan Papelbon’s a great closer, and I like having great players on my team. While I love what these moves say about Philly, I dread what they portend for the Phillies’ future.
Ruben Amaro and Co. need to disavow themselves of the idea that Moneyball is about seeing how much cash and prospects you can spend—and to this point, Amaro’s not proven much more than a flair for the dramatic and that he can spend money. This is no time for a pissing match; it’s time to get to the crucial task of actually developing the next crop of Phillies stars—the Domonic Browns, the Jesse Biddles, the Trevor Mays, the Michael Schwimers—before this one hits the wall.