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Jeff Luhnow Will Never be David Montgomery, and the Phillies Will Never be the Astros Because Of It

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

By all accounts David Montgomery was a prince among men.  The former Phillies chairman/president/ticket-taker/you-name-it over his several decade tenure with the club defined what it meant to be a member of the Phillies family.  And make no mistake about it, if you work for the Phillies, you’re not only an employee, you’re a member of the brood. 

“I believe that whatever capacity you work for us, you determine the Phillies family,” Montgomery said last year. “I believe that. As a family member, it’s our responsibility to treat you like family and get to know you the best we can. … The best way to treat fans right is to treat the people you work with right.”  The Phillies have a reputation of being one of the most collegial front offices in professional sports.  If you’re thinking of working in that field, Citizens Bank Park is where you want to be.

By contrast, the Houston Astros seem to be the last place you’d want to be.  At a minimum, you’d be smart not to make any long-term commitments while you’re there.  And keep your resume updated and the gas tank full. 

Since arriving in 2012, Houston GM Jeff Luhnow has taken to firing employees the way Gabe Kapler has to coconut oil.  According to Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchick’s new book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Noncomformists are Using Data to Build Better Players, 51 of the 53 people employed in the club’s player development department when Luhnow arrived were gone six years later, either tossed or forcibly pushed out the door when they wouldn't goose step in Luhnow’s shadow.  “I don’t know if anyone has ever so thoroughly turned over a front office down to the coaches and scouts,” one Astros source told Lindbergh and Sawchick. 

As the face of the front office, Luhnow demands that his employees be as cutthroat as he is.  Director of Player Personnel Quinton McCracken was let go in 2017 because Luhnow found him to be too cuddly – too slow to ax underperforming players and coaches.  So Luhnow axed him instead.  If you’re looking for the reverse image of Montgomery, you’ve found him in Luhnow.  The only family the Astros resemble is the Manson’s.  It’s a cult and Luhnow is its shaman and there will be blood.

While I’d never want to work for Luhnow, I think I’d prefer rooting for whatever team he runs to one run by Montgomery and his cousins, though.  If the Astros are baseball’s answer to the Manson Family, they’re at least incredibly efficient in executing their evil deeds, and, as a fan, they’re executing them for my benefit.  I think I like that.

Because he cuts and replaces, cuts and replaces, innovates and then innovates again, Luhnow’s Astros have seemingly achieved the impossible in maintaining their position on baseball’s cutting edge.  They trot out something new and leap to the front of the field.  Then, when they sense others catching up, they toss and replace it with something else.  Everybody in baseball is perpetually playing catch-up to the Astros.  They’re always first to the party.  Once it starts, though, they’re gone and off to the next one.

“One of our advantages has been not being afraid to be the first to try (and probably fail) to implement new methods,” the club’s current Director of Player Development told Lindbergh and Sawchick. Another (now former) front office member told them, “I realized after a few years in Houston that I kept thinking, well, now that we have got TrackMan digested and understood, things will slow down.  And then, OK, now that we have Blast Motion digested and understood, things will slow down. Now that we have Statcast—etc., etc. The pace keeps increasing.”

And then there are the Phillies. 

A guy with Matt Klentak’s resume and approach would have been a truly innovative front office hire in 2001.  By late 2015, when the Phillies family finally felt comfortable enough to make such a move, they were already too late to the party.  Klentak talks analytics, and he practices what he preaches, but by now so does nearly everyone in baseball.  And anyway, it wasn’t merely the lack of analytics that ailed the Phillies’ front office prior to Klentak’s hire.  It was their unwillingness, or inability, to innovate – to be pioneers, to be first to arrive.  The Klentak hiring merely put the club in the pack, not ahead of it, where Luhnow’s Astros reside. 

Klentak’s no doubt a smart guy.  But as the club's GM he hasn’t implemented much of anything that wasn’t already being done by at least a handful of clubs before him.  The standard for an innovator is incredibly high.  You have to be first.  Second isn’t good enough.  And fourteenth, or whatever the point is where the organization finally feels emboldened enough to try something different, barely keeps you in the game.

The Phillies family is large and ever expanding.  Bill Giles still walks the halls, as does Ed WadePat Gillick remains on the payroll, as does both Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel.  When Ruben Amaro, Jr. finds himself in need of a home after The Fraternal Order of First Base Coaches excommunicates him, he’ll be welcomed back with open arms and a waiting office.  This is the result of the culture Montgomery helped to nurture.  It’s a warm, inviting place.  I can’t confirm this but I have strong suspicions that the aroma of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies permeates the corridors of the front office suites. 

Once on the payroll, people just seem to hang around the club forever, settling into their comfy armchairs and nodding off for hours -- or years -- at a time.  Nobody appears to have the gumption to wake them and tell them it’s time to move on, to be replaced by newer, younger, thinkers, ones who can speak about what’s coming next and not merely about what came before.  The Eagles play across the street but it’s the Phillies who have created their own version of the Hotel California at the sports complex.  GM’s and managers check in but they never leave.

To be sure, there are worse things in the world than being unfailingly nice.  And there are plenty of crimes more heinous than creating a warm and welcoming work environment.  I wish I lived within in the world David Montgomery helped to create with the Phillies.

I’m just not so sure I like watching the ballclub that world created.

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