Let’s go to Ruben from Bucks County; he’s got some thoughts on the 76ers. Ruben, go ahead:
“What an über-talented team. Now they’re talking about the possibility of LeBron coming there next year? I mean, my God, that would be spectacular. He might be the GOAT. He might be the greatest of all time. I don’t know what Michael Jordan people would say about that, but it’s hard to argue.”
This was not a sports call-in show, just Ruben Amaro Jr. chatting about one of his favorite teams in a dugout interview at Citi Field the other day. Amaro, the Mets’ first-base coach, also loves the Philadelphia Eagles, the Flyers, the Union, Villanova and — yes, even now — the Phillies, the team that fired him as general manager in September 2015.
The Mets visit Philadelphia for the first time this season on Friday. Amaro has been back before as a coach, for the Boston Red Sox in 2017, before the Mets hired him in November. He still lives in the Pennsylvania suburbs, and his younger self is even a featured character on “The Goldbergs,” an ABC sitcom set in the 1980s that is a valentine to Philadelphia.
“I’m a Philly guy,” Amaro said — and, as such, it feels strange for him to wear the uniform of the team the Phillies chased down in 2007, igniting a streak of five consecutive division titles. “I never thought I’d be employed by the Mets.”
Amaro was the assistant general manager under Pat Gillick when the Phillies began their run. He had started in that role under Ed Wade upon retirement as a player in 1998, a year in which the Phillies picked first in the draft. They rose to a title a decade later, but then fell so far that they picked first again in 2016, after Amaro’s last season in the front office.
His seven-year stint as general manager began with a National League pennant in 2009, when he showed a knack for aggressive deals by trading for an ace, Cliff Lee, who won twice in the Phillies’ World Series loss to the Yankees. Other deals followed for stars like Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, and in 2011 the Phillies earned a franchise-record 102 victories.
“I told my daughters when I first got my job, ‘For about three or four years, you’re going to think your dad’s brilliant — and then after that you’re going to think he’s the biggest idiot on the planet,’” Amaro said. “It was almost true to form.”
The good times ended abruptly after that third season in charge. The Phillies fell to .500 in 2012, then staggered to 73-89 records in each of the next two seasons. Unable to successfully patch an expensive, aging roster with veterans, the Phillies finally started rebuilding in 2015. They finished 63-99, their worst mark in more than half a century.
This season has brought signs of life under Amaro’s successor as general manager, Matt Klentak. The Phillies were 21-15 through Wednesday after a busy off-season that included committing $135 million to the free agents Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana. Mostly, though, the roster includes players Amaro left behind.
As of Thursday morning, 24 of the 32 players on the Phillies’ active roster or 10-day disabled list were acquired while Amaro was general manager, including Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery and Aaron Nola.
Three players — catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder Nick Williams and the injured starter Jerad Eickhoff — remain from Amaro’s biggest deal, which sent starter Cole Hamels to Texas. Others arrived in trades for veterans who seemed to have little value; Nick Pivetta, a promising starter, came from Washington for reliever Jonathan Papelbon, and another starter, Ben Lively, came from Cincinnati for outfielder Marlon Byrd.
None of this will earn Amaro a statue on Pattison Avenue. But it may be time to reconsider his legacy in his hometown, where his father played and coached.
“In my heart of hearts, I know that I could have completed the transition,” Amaro said. “We were well on our way to doing that, and I was just a little sad I didn’t get the opportunity, because I knew I could do it well. I’d been through it with Ed; I know what works and what doesn’t work. I wish I would have had the opportunity to complete it, but hey, that’s all part of the industry. We became a very bad team and we were going through a transition, and the blame goes to the G.M. He’s the guy running the show. We’re hired to get fired.”
In hindsight, Amaro said, he would have pushed to start the transition earlier. He would have found a better way to incorporate analytics into the team’s strategies. And he would not have traded Lee to Seattle the same day he traded for Halladay in December 2009.
“That would be my one regret, that we didn’t keep them both,” Amaro said. “But we had made so many moves to move talent out of our system that we were trying to figure out a way to replenish. I think in retrospect we all would have held on to both of them at the time.”
The prospects the Phillies acquired for Lee went bust, and Lee — after another trade, to Texas — wound up in the 2010 World Series against the San Francisco Giants, who had beaten the Phillies in the National League Championship Series. The Giants could not match the Phillies’ talent, but it was just their year; they thumped Lee twice in the World Series.
The Phillies team that did claim a title, in 2008, won 10 fewer games in the regular season than the 2011 team, which featured Halladay, Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Lee, who returned to Philadelphia as a free agent. But that group lost in a division series to St. Louis, with Chris Carpenter beating Halladay, 1-0, to end it.
When Halladay retired two years later, Amaro urged him to take a job with the Phillies, promising that as long as he worked there, so could Halladay. When Amaro was fired, his former assistant, Scott Proefrock, stayed on and continued the chase.
Halladay agreed last March to work as a mental-skills coach for the Phillies’ prospects in Clearwater, Fla. He gave his last presentation in November, the day before he died in a plane crash. Amaro reconnected with his old team in Florida for the memorial service.
“I don’t know if there’s ever going to be another Roy Halladay,” Amaro said last week. “If he didn’t throw, like, seven innings of shutout ball or eight innings of one-run ball, he would text me after the game: ‘Sorry I let you down.’ I mean, that kind of accountability. I honestly feel like I’m a better person because I knew the guy.”
It did not take brilliance to identify Halladay as a pitcher who would help the Phillies. But it took a general manager to make it happen, and Amaro did. He was not the biggest idiot on the planet, and his old team is starting to prove it.