PHANATIC'S DESIGNER STARTED A FIGHT IT DESPERATELY DOES NOT WANT TO WIN

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

One of the more interesting aspects of the dust-up between the design firm Harrison-Erickson (H/E) and the Phillies over the copyright to the Phillie Phanatic is that H/E really, really, really does not want to win it.  It finds itself in an odd position for a litigant -- if it loses it loses, obviously, but if it wins it loses as well.  And setting aside the legal issues pursuant to the minutiae of copyright law that may or may not be in its favor, it is this cold reality that puts the Phillies in the driver's seat in this dispute.

Assuming that the Phillies dig their heels in and litigate this to the very end, what does H/E stand to win should a court find that it does, in fact, own the copyright to the Phanatic and therefore has the right to make him a "free agent," as its letter to the Phillies has threatened?  As far as I can tell, it wins nothing more than a bag of smelly green fur and a pair of oversized boots which might have a street value of a few thousand dollars at best.  It cannot win the right to call that bag of fur the "Phillie Phanatic" because the Phillies unquestionably own the right to their name.  It cannot win the right to dress the fur in its familiar Phillies cap and jersey because, here again, the Phillies own the right to those as well.  All H/E wins, in the end, is the bag of fur, which becomes anonymous and meaningless absent its connections to ballclub it has traditionally been associated with.  And, oh yeah, the boots.

Of course, H/E might offer up that bag of fur to any of the other 29 other Major League clubs to use as ballpark entertainment much as the Phanatic has been used in Philadelphia since 1978.  But it's hard to see why anyone would pay a premium for this particular bag of fur.  Sports mascots have been around for decades and it's not difficult for any club to order up whatever sort of costume it desires.  There isn't any additional attraction to outfitting this particular costume in, say, a Dodgers uniform and rebranding it the "Dodger Dandy," or whatever their marketing team comes up with.  In the end, there's nothing special about the fur once the physical elements of the costume have been severed from the Phillies.  Once the Phillie Phanatic dies, there is no way to resurrect him as something else without fatally damaging the brand. 

H/E knows this, of course.  It knows that there's nothing special, per se, about the green outfit it designed.  In fact, H/E designed several sports mascots after it created the Phanatic and none of them approached the success achieved by the Phillie Phanatic.  As for why that is, it very likely has to do with the work the Phillies invested in transforming the outfit into a bona fide character, with a personality even perpetually jaded Philadelphians would not only accept but embrace as one of their own. 

H/E also created Youppi! for the Expos and while it has survived (it now trolls Canadians games) it is little more than an orange costume with a sweaty man inside, available for pictures with little children.  It is harmless and anonymous, as is pretty much every mascot that patrols the stands throughout major and minor league baseball (which has no shortage of furry green ones, it should be noted). The Phanatic, on the other hand, is Philadelphia through and through.  This is why fans here have embraced him like they have.  Take the Philadelphia out of the Phanatic and there's nothing left.

So if H/E knows all of this, why has it threatened to, in effect, kill the Phillie Phanatic? 

Money.  No surprise there, but quick money, in the form of an early settlement.  H/E is betting that the fear of losing the rights to the Phanatic will scare the Phillies to the bargaining table.  And this bet is probably a good one.  The Phils have a lot to lose should H/E prevail in the courts and sever the Phanatic from the franchise.  So the Phillies will pay up.

The thing is, though, H/E loses big as well should it win.  Which means both sides are fully incentivized to settle and to settle quickly.  Which is what will ultimately happen.  Given the weakness of its bargaining position, however, H/E is in line for a much smaller settlement than I'm guessing it thinks it's going to get. 

The Phils will undoubtedly blink and offer H/E a bundle of cash to make this go away rather than fighting to the end.  But so will H/E because it can't afford not to blink.  It simply cannot afford to win this case in the courts because to win is to lose.  And lose big, once its legal fees are counted up. 

Long live the Phillie Phanatic. 


BREAKING DOWN THE DISPUTE OVER THE RIGHTS TO THE PHILLIE PHANATIC

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Following up on yesterday’s blockbuster news of a lawsuit between the Phillies and the design firm Harrison/Erickson, Inc. (H/E) over who ultimately owns the rights to the Phillie Phanatic, here’s how things got where they are and how they most likely will pan out. 

First, it’s important to take note of who is suing whom.  Even though it’s H/E who is threatening to make the Phanatic a “free agent,” it’s the Phillies who have filed the suit seeking judicial recognition of their ownership rights to the Phanatic– a “declaratory judgment” asking the court to declare the Phillies the sole owners of the Phanatic so as to prevent H/E from acting on its threat.  In essence, this is a peremptory move on the Phillies’ part to prevent H/E from suing the Phillies later on.

Interestingly, the Phillies filed this lawsuit in the 2nd Circuit (encompassing New York) rather than the 3rd Circuit (encompassing Philadelphia).  This might be because H/E operates out of Brooklyn but it might also be because the 2nd Circuit has a reputation of being less copyright-friendly than the 3rd circuit.  And it will be the determination of whether H/E's copyright on the Phanatic is valid that would decide the case should it ever be fully litigated.  Most likely both factors played into the Phillies' decision to file in New York. 

With regard to the merits of the case, things begin to get a bit murkier, although it appears as if the Phillies have the upper hand here, absent some new information provided by H/E’s attorneys if and when they file their answer to the Phillies’ complaint.  “If and when” are important caveats here because of the likelihood that the parties reach some sort of agreement prior to this happening.  If they don’t, H/E’s answer should be an interesting read.

Without delving too deeply into the weeds, the controversy involves the application of Title 17, section 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which states, in relevant part: “Termination of the [copyright] grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant…”  H/E contends that it owns the copyright of the Phanatic and that its assignment of its copyright to the Phillies in 1984 expires this year.  In fact, H/E did register the copyright with the United States Copyright Office on May 4, 1979.  So far, so good.  But here’s where the weeds get thick.

In fact, they become nearly impenetrable due to of the photograph of the Phanatic H/E appended to its application for copyright protection.  The photograph was not merely of the outfit, which H/E claimed to have designed, but of the outfit as worn.  In short, rather than simply present the materials it designed in its application, H/E presented a combination of its materials and the animating effect of the materials, thus blending the work product of H/E and the work product of the Phillies, who employed Dave Raymond to animate the costume (it’s unclear if Raymond is the individual inside the costume photograph attached to H/E’s copyright application). 

Further, because (the Phillies allege) a “costume” could not be copyrighted in any case (at least back in 1979), H/E categorized the Phanatic instead as an “artistic sculpture,” which was subject to copyright, describing the Phanatic in the application as “a shaggy creature wearing tennis shoes, tights, & a baseball shirt while carrying pennant.”  The problem with the categorization of the Phanatic as an “artistic sculpture” (at least according to the Phillies) is that there was legal precedent holding that, generally speaking, a sculpture “implies a relatively firm form representing a particular concept.”  The Phanatic, however, is not a firm form and is merely a pile of fabric that measures a few inches high until a human being puts it on, when it grows to over six feet in height and several feet in diameter.  Accordingly, at least so claim the Phillies, H/E obtained its copyright fraudulently and, as such, have no rights to assert it over them.

In fact, the issue of whether a costume can in fact be subject to copyright is complex -- more complex than the Phillies allege it to be.  Just yesterday the 3rd Circuit handed down a decision in a case involving a Rastafarian banana costume that held that indeed a costume could be subject to copyright.  And the Supreme Court in 2017 has likewise suggested that the issue isn't as cut-and-dried as the Phillies complaint makes it out to be.

However, in 1979 and in the 2nd Circuit (where, remember, the Phillies have chosen to file their lawsuit), the issue seemed to be a bit more clear.  The prevailing law at that time in that circuit held that costumes were not subject to copyright.  The Phillies allege that H/E was aware of this and committed a fraud upon the copyright office when it took pains to present the Phanatic outfit as something other than what it was -- a costume. 

There are other issues to be sorted out as well.  The Phillies claim that they helped to design the costume itself, with Bill Giles making specific recommendations regarding the costume/artistic sculpture.  At one point during the design process, the Phillies’ complaint alleges that Giles rejected an early rendering of the Phanatic, insisting that it be fatter and have a larger nose.  The Phillies also contributed some of the materials for the outfit, supplying the Phanatic’s cap, jersey and “other material” to the final product.  As such, the Phillies allege that even if the Phanatic were an “artistic sculpture,” H/E could not be the sole copyright holder as the creation of the Phanatic was a joint venture. 

In addition, there are trademark issues that further complicate the rights of H/E to the Phanatic.  The Phillies have registered at least eight separate trademarks related to the Phanatic over the years, implicating the niceties of trademark law, of which the reader will mercifully be spared here.  In short, H/E’s road to victory here would be difficult, although perhaps not impossible.

Villanova Law professor and intellectual property expert Michael Risch calls the dispute “a complex situation that will take some time to work out…. Copyright gives the original author the right to terminate an assignment after a certain number of years. But there are exceptions. If it’s a work made for hire, then the corporation is the initial owner, and there’s no assignment to terminate. If there was joint authorship (as the Phillies claim), then there’s nothing to terminate (or at the very least, there may be dueling ownership where each gets to use it). If there have been changes since the very first design, those won’t terminate, so the differences between the original and the current must be contemplated (this was a big issue in termination of Superman rights, as the original had no cape and couldn’t fly). And if there are trademark rights, then use of the copyright may be complicated to the extent that they confuse users into thinking the Phillies are involved. So, there’s a lot to think about here.”

In the end, Risch predicts that the two sides will reach a settlement rather than litigate further.  There is simply too much for each side to lose to pursue this to the bitter end.  From H/E’s perspective, fighting all the way to a verdict would be expensive and the facts, at least as the Phillies have put them forth in their complaint, don’t seem to be in H/E's favor.  Rejecting a settlement now might leave H/E with nothing other than an enormous legal bill once the verdict has been rendered. 

The Phils, as well, have a lot to lose here even if all the facts are as they allege (which they probably aren’t).  The Phils not only have millions of dollars invested in the Phanatic, the character is in many ways the backbone of the organization’s identity.  The Phillie Phanatic’s image dominates the club’s marketing, Citizen Bank Park, even the tickets (at least back when they had them).  Players come and go but, since 1978, the Phanatic has been a Phillie for life.  Or so we’ve all assumed.  To take even a small chance that they may lose him by forcing this case to a verdict is too much of a chance for an organization that is well aware that the only Phillie perpetually immune to the boo birds is the Phanatic. 

It’s in both parties’ interest to settle this dispute and settle it early.  If they don’t, however, the progression of this litigation will be fascinating to follow. 


Nick Pivetta Destined to Be Remembered As the Phillie You Forget

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Interesting article in the Inky the other day, pontificating on the future role of Nick Pivetta.  Once considered a prime candidate to fill the role of starter, now considered for a role in the bullpen, his ultimate role remains unsettled.  But I think I know what it will be.

Nick Pivetta has all the makings of the sort of guy you’re most likely going to forget when you look back years later trying to recall the nightmare rotations the Phillies of the late teens put together.  You’ll no doubt remember Aaron Nola because he’ll be quickly recalled as the only one who actually resembled a legitimate Major League starter during this era.  In his way, he’s the Steve Carlton of the current group, although Carlton’s 346.1 innings pitched in 1972 renders any comparison to Nola, whose goal is to reach 200 innings every season, somewhat ridiculous.  Regardless.  Somebody has to be the Carlton of this group and nobody else is even in the stratosphere.  So you’ll remember Nola.  No question.

You’ll also probably remember Jake Arrieta because he was a significant free agent bust and just flat-out looks funny in his uniform.  You can always tell when Arrieta is on the mound.  Nothing seems to fit correctly, everything’s just a bit off.  And he’s usually out of the game by the fifth inning after yelling something stupid at someone who only did what he was being paid to do when a flat frisbee sails right over the heart of the strike zone.  You won’t forget Arrieta.

Vince Velasquez will likewise stand out because he’s been singularly horrid during his tenure here, after tantalizing us with an otherworldly start back in April of 2016.  After shutting out the Padres while striking out 16 we all thought we had something.  And we did.  We had a really crappy pitcher who took forever to make it past the fourth inning save that one fantastic start.  It will be difficult to forget someone who was as painful to watch as Velasquez.

And you’ll remember Zach Eflin for no other reason than because his name reminds you of Zac Efron.  You won’t remember him for any other reason but so what?  You’ll remember him nevertheless.

Which leaves Pivetta.  Why would anybody ever remember Nick Pivetta?  He wasn’t a high draft choice and he didn’t come here with any sort of fanfare – he was the penance the Phils were compelled to suffer in exchange for the Nationals’ taking Jonathan Papelbon off their hands – so he wasn’t on anyone’s radar.  And outside of one hot stretch at Lehigh Valley, he was an invisible man on the minor league circuit.  And then there’s the name – Nick Pivetta.  Who remembers a Nick Pivetta?  Everybody went to high school with a Nick Pivetta.  And nobody remembers that guy, either.

For as long as there has been baseball, there has been a guy on every team, usually a pitcher, you can’t remember.  From the Phillies of the ‘80s, Bruce Ruffin is the guy you struggle to recall.  He was sometimes a starter, sometimes a reliever, but always forgettable.  Don Carman might very well have been that guy but for the fact that Harry Kalas so loved rolling his name around his mouth before expelling it that you can't forget Don Carman. 

Going even further back, to the ‘70s, I think that guy was Ron Schueler.  I say “I think” because if I knew for sure then he wouldn’t be that guy then, would he?  But, yeah, I’m pretty sure he was.  He won a few games, lost a few more, and never distinguished himself in any way.  Baseball Reference tells me he played for eight seasons, which is seven more than I remember him playing.  But I do remember that the mid-70s Phils had Carlton, Jim Lonborg, Wayne Twitchell, Tommy Underwood, Jim Kaat, Larry Christenson and somebody else in their rotation.  That somebody else was Ron Schueler. 

Today’s somebody else is Nick Pivetta.  He’s not the worst and he’s not the best.  He’s just there.  And on a team that’s going nowhere, just being there is as good as not being there at all when it comes to one’s legacy.  He’s the guy you’re going to forget merely because he’s not as awful as Vince Velasquez.  10, 15 years from now you’ll be talking Phillies with your friends and the late teens’ Phils will come up.  You’ll of course remember Bryce Harper because he’ll still be there.  Pinch-hitting at $23 million per annum.  And you’ll remember Hoskins and Realmuto, and at least one of your friends will call out “Maikel Franco!” and you’ll go “Yes!” 

Then the discussion will turn to the rotation and you’ll all name Nola and, with some effort, the others.  But then there will be one spot left and nobody will be able to nail it.  It’ll be on the tip of your collective tongues but still just beyond reach.  Finally, you'll give up and one of you will Google the Phillies’ 2019 rotation.  “Nick Pivetta,” will pop up.  “Oh, yeah,” you’ll all go.  “That guy.”  There’ll be a moment of quiet contemplation and then one of you will go, “Jesus.  Nick Pivetta.” 

Then you’ll all start talking about something else.


DODGERS IN TOWN, BLACK FRIDAY STILL HURTS, WELCOME TO LIFE AS A PHILLIES FAN

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

With the Dodgers in town, no better time to dredge up the most disastrous moment in Phillies history.  Which is saying something, because this franchise has been involved in more disasters than Godzilla. 

You can have your Mitch Williams/Joe Carter moment in the ’93 World Series, or your epic collapse in September 1964, I’ll take the Black Friday playoff debacle against the Dodgers any day.  October 7th, 1977 was the single worst day in Phillies history.  And I’ll prove it.

Depending on your age, you’ll no doubt have your favorite.  And rest assured, the Phillies have a meltdown that suits your needs no matter how old you are.  They’re that accommodating.  Sort of like a family board game – agita from the Phillies is for kids of all ages: from 8 to 80.  No joke – Eight-year-old Phillie fans probably had their stomachs turned for the first time just a few days ago, when Hector Neris ruined their fireworks night by blowing Saturday’s game against the Nats.  But that’s kids’ stuff. 

Let’s talk about the true contenders: 1964, 1993, and Black Friday, 1977.  The 1964 ten-game late-September collapse that cost the Phillies the pennant is generally considered the worst moment in franchise history but, really, it was little more than a ballclub coming down to Earth after soaring to wildly unexpected heights for a few months.  The Phillies had been a terrible club for years, bottoming out in 1961 when they managed to nauseate the few fans they had left by losing a big-league record 23 straight games on their way to 107 losses and a finish that fell a scant 46 games off the pace. 

They then decided to put together something resembling a Major League team for a change.  Finally willing to sign and promote nonwhite talent, the club, under the direction of GM John Quinn, became respectable.  And when Dick Allen showed up in September 1963, they looked to be a bit more than that.  Combined with Johnny Callison and Jim Bunning, Allen’s Phils surprised everyone by taking control of the National League out of the chute and hanging on until the last couple of weeks.  Yes, it was heartbreaking when they finally collapsed but, really, few thought they were anything special going into the season.  Respectable, yes.  Good, maybe.  But special?  No way.  And the years that followed confirmed such suspicions.  That group never seriously contended again.

The 1993 Phils weren’t all that different.  In ’92 they finished last and they had been mediocre for nearly a decade by that point.  They caught fire in ’93 and this time made it all the way to the World Series before a spent Mitch Williams offered up the gopher ball that ended the season.  I’ll admit that I nearly put my foot through my flimsy apartment wall as Carter’s ball arced its way over the fence but after the hurt came the realization that the season overall had been a blessing and a blast.  True, it didn’t end well but nobody would have traded the raucous fun of the preceding six months for anything. 

Black Friday was different.  Oh, man, was it different.  The ’77 Phils were a juggernaut.  In an era that included Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the Reggie Jackson-led Bronx Bombers, and even the Big Blue Wrecking Crew of the mid-70s Dodgers, the Phillies were better.  They may not have had a better starting lineup than the Reds, or even the Yanks, but they were deeper than any team in baseball that season.  Yet, in the end, they had nothing to show for it.

Looking back with four decades worth of perspective, it’s clear that the ‘70s were a transitional era in baseball.  The starting pitcher was still dominant but bullpens were just beginning to be thought of as something more than receptacles for washout pitchers who couldn’t cut it in the rotation.  As a result, pitching staffs, as a whole, were deeper than they ever had been – or are now, what with the role of the dominant starter largely diminished in today’s game.  The Phils had a 10-man staff that was stacked with both dominant starters as well as relievers.  Steve Carlton won the Cy Young Award that year, Larry Christenson won 19 games, Jim Lonborg had won 18 in ’76 and was still effective, and Jim Kaat – a borderline Hall of Famer – was the fourth man in the rotation.  The bullpen included four relievers who later, when the term came into vogue, would have been considered closers – Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, Warren Brusstar, and Gene Garber.  No other team in baseball had a pitching staff nearly as deep.

Because in '70s baseball the starter was still sacrosanct, though, pitching staffs had yet to expand to the 12-man staffs we see today.  Which meant that the benches were deep.  And without question, the Phils’ was the deepest.  The other night Gabe Kapler had one legitimate move off his bench – Jay Bruce – and when he used it too early he had no bullets left when he needed them most.  In ’77, manager Danny Ozark could call on either Bake McBride (.339) or Jay Johnstone (.284), depending on which of the two wasn't starting in right that evening, Tim McCarver (.320), Davey Johnson (.321), and Tommy Hutton (.309) as bats off the bench.  He also had Jerry Martin, Barry Foote and Terry Harmon for defensive purposes.  In short, he had bullets.  A seemingly unlimited stockpile of them.  The NRA would have been proud.

The ’77 Phils won 101 games and were much better from top to bottom than a very good Dodgers club.  Unlike in ’64 and ’93, nearly everybody thought the Phils were the team to beat in the National League, if not all of baseball.  Hell, a few people even considered the ’76 squad to be, if not better than, at least nearly as good as the Reds club that beat them in the ’76 NLCS and which is generally considered one of the greatest of all time.  And nobody thought the ’76 Phils were better than the ’77 version.

So when the 63,719 fans rocked the Vet to its foundation and unnerved Dodgers pitcher Burt Hooton to the point where he became unable to throw strikes that Friday afternoon in Game 3 of the ’77 NLCS, things were as they should be.  The Dodgers were good, the Phillies were great.  This was our Big Red Machine.  Our Big Burgundy Machine, perhaps. 

The game was a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of everything Phillies fans knew about themselves and their ballclub.  A vindication of sorts.  We were better then they were.  It didn’t even matter who “they” were.  Pick any team.  Our guys were better.  We knew that for roughly 150 minutes.

Then the ninth inning began with Ozark forgetting to use one of his defensive bullets.  Jerry Martin remained on the bench as a confused Greg Luzinski ran out to left after inquiring as to why he was going out there.  After the first two outs it didn’t seem to matter that Ozark had broken with his season-long protocol.  Then came the ten minutes that undid everything.  The ten minutes that left not only a club but an entire city wondering what the hell had just happened.  Black Friday shook both the Phils and their fanbase to their cores.  Neither would ever believe quite the same way again. 

I won’t go into the details.  Frank Fitzpatrick wrote a great article on the specifics of the debacle just a few weeks ago; I wrote an entire book about it (The Fall of the 1977 Phillies); others have memorialized it as well.  No matter which take on it you read, though, the ending is always the same.  In Black Friday, Phillies fans experienced a true baseball nightmare.  Up was down, down was up, the Dodgers won, the Phillies were on the brink of another playoff elimination.  Unlike in ’64 or ’93, the best team lost, and in the worst possible way. 

Testament to the quality of that Phillies club was that it won the East the next year despite the scar.  Then folded again against the Dodgers.  Yes, the Phils finally won it all in 1980 but if you remember that -- and you’re being honest with yourself -- you know that the feeling you got when McGraw struck out Willie Wilson in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series was not quite elation but exhausted relief. 

Black Friday was the reason for that muted response.  Elation was simply beyond the grasp of those who had suffered in their souls just three years earlier.


Baseballs, And Careers, Are Disappearing Right Before Our Eyes

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

So you’re at work one day and your boss sidles over with a suggestion he swears will make you more productive and, therefore, more valuable to the company.  As he talks through it everything sounds great – you’ll become markedly better at what you do, and your company’s bottom line will increase as a result.  There’s only one drawback, he finally admits.  You’ll only be productive like this for a few years, after which you’ll become utterly useless.  Well, maybe two: the moment you show the first signs of losing value, at approximately the same time you think you’re finally able to command a salary commensurate with the startling level of productivity you’ve now achieved, you’ll be terminated and replaced with a younger employee who will do what you no longer can – and on the cheap -- until he can’t and then he’ll be replaced, too.  And so on and so forth.  What would you say to that? 

You probably wouldn’t rush to hop on board that train, that’s for sure.  It’s a sucker’s deal, no doubt, with only one true beneficiary – the company.  Everyone else winds up abandoned on the side of the road, smoking shells of their former selves.  Yet that’s the deal MLB players are taking right now, in the “three true outcomes” era.  And it’s not clear they have any alternative but to continue to be complicit in the torching of their own careers.

In an era where velocity isn’t merely the most important thing but often the only thing that matters, pitchers are lining up to do whatever it takes to add a few miles to their fastballs and more spin on their breaking balls, even though studies have found strong correlations between the exercises required to achieve these outcomes and significant arm strain and injury. 

Hitters, as well, have altered their approaches at the plate, at the urging of the technical specialists their clubs are now hiring by the boatload, armed with data and machinery showing that it’s lift that matters, not consistent contact.  In fact, all of this shows, with pitchers throwing so hard, consistent contact isn’t even a reasonably achievable goal anymore; there will be more swinging and missing than ever given the velo and spin craze so on those increasingly rare occasions when you do make contact, you better make it count. 

In this environment it’s the reflexes that matter most – reflexes that begin to diminish slowly but steadily in one’s mid-to-late-twenties.  A young hitter is worth more than an older one for this reason alone.  And by old, we’re talking late ‘20’s; a 30-year-old hitter is increasingly being looked upon as some sort of baseball codger.  Once the reflexes start to go, even a smidgen, the data suggests that it’s time to move on to the next guy.  50 may be the new 30 at Sandals Montego Bay but in baseball 29 is rapidly becoming the new 40.

None of this is in the best interests of the players on the field.  They’re being chewed up and spit out of the grinder that is Major League Baseball at alarming speed.  And more and more frequently, before they can truly cash in.  The collection of free agents on the outside looking in every March keeps growing, and with bigger names.  To be sure, none of them are destitute.  But many of them thought they were heading toward life-altering paydays and then watched everything being snatched away right when they were on the cusp of them.

Of course, they’re pissed about this.  Yet, at the same time, they’re adjusting their swings and increasing the torque on their arms nevertheless, somehow not appreciating the connection between their embrace of these new baseball norms and their own hasty and unceremonious exits from the game a few years down the road because of them.

Worse, even if they do, there’s no clear path toward putting a stop to all of it and protecting their careers.  Players have wanted to throw harder since before the days of Cy Young, and hit the ball further ever since Babe Ruth arrived in Boston in 1914.  These are not new ideas.  Yet, while baseball history is littered with cornpone advice on how to throw this pitch or that one, and how to hit like Ted Williams, George Brett, or Tony Gwynn, the game’s surprising saving grace has always been that such advice was worthless.  Ted Williams had no idea how he did what he did, despite what he claimed.  For all his bragging about understanding the mechanics of hitting, he still managed four Washington Senators/Texas Rangers clubs that annually ranked among the most abysmal offensive teams in the American League from 1969-72.

Today, however, the advice from the data experts littered throughout baseball isn’t cornpone.  These guys know what they’re talking about.  They’re achieving real results.  Pitchers are throwing harder, and with more spin than ever; hitters are hitting more, and harder, home runs.  It’s difficult to imagine any player ignoring the technology and advice that’s out there right now.  He’d be a fool to do so.  The thing is, he’s also a fool to buy in to it.

Right now the players are trapped.  Caught between their desire to perform at the highest possible level and guarding against their own obsolescence.  There’s no way out for them.  They’re stuck.

Other than that, the game’s in great shape.  Happy 4th


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.