by Clark Groome
The most important news coming from the Philadelphia Phillies’ announcement that David Montgomery would return to the team is that he is healthy and raring to get back to the team for whom he has worked since 1971. The Wyndmoor resident is returning from a medical leave caused by the draconian treatment of the jaw cancer that sidelined him in August.
Montgomery, who served as president and chief executive officer since 1997, is now the team’s chairman. Pat Gillick, who served as interim president in Montgomery’s absence, now loses the “interim” tag.
Over his time as president, Montgomery has been widely viewed as one of Major League Baseball’s finest executives. On the MLB Network’s daily baseball news show, the anchor (I don’t know who it was) noted that the best news of the off-season was Montgomery’s return, a man he described as the best the sport has to offer.
My colleagues in the media and the Phillies’ employees with whom I’ve talked (full disclosure: I know Montgomery not only as a reporter but also as a fellow congregant at our local church) all profess both respect and affection for the man universally known at the ballpark as “David.”
The local fans, on the other hand, have at times had a somewhat less positive view.
When he took over from Bill Giles in 1997, the team was not in good shape. Playing in the deteriorating Veterans Stadium, the Phils finished last in their division in 1997. Over the next decade they got better but never made it to the playoffs. Folks wrote and griped on talk radio that the Phillies were cheap. Montgomery always said that as soon as they had their own ballpark that would change. Few really believed him.
But change was coming. A year after Montgomery took the helm he replaced General Manager Lee Thomas with Ed Wade.
An early indication of that change was the popular 2001 hiring of Larry Bowa as manager. While Bowa only lasted three years, his tenure saw the team become a challenger. It was during this time that the Phillies’ plans for their new park were unveiled and construction begun.
Wade’s most visible on-field move was to lure Jim Thome from Cleveland in 2003. More important than that was his drafting of Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley. Jimmy Rollins was already in the system, having been drafted by Thomas in 1996.
In 2004 the team moved into Citizens Bank Park where it continued to contend. The fans were ecstatic. Bowa was replaced in 2004 and Charlie Manuel had the reins from 2005 to August of 2013.
No longer did Montgomery and the owners get pilloried for being cheap. The town was electric with anticipation. To put the finishing touches on the transformation to elite status, Montgomery fired Ed Wade in 2005 (the hardest decision he ever made, he noted in a conversation last weekend) and hired future Hall of Famer Pat Gillick as his replacement.
With Gillick in charge, some trades were made and some new faces acquired, all of which led to the Phils winning their division in 2007, the first of five straight titles; winning the 2008 World Series; and appearing in the 2009 World Series.
When Gillick retired after the 2008 World Series, longtime Phillie Ruben Amaro Jr. was named his replacement. While Amaro is now the team’s biggest target (deservedly so, I think), he did bring pitchers Cliff Lee (twice), Roy “Doc” Halladay and Raul Ibañez to Philadelphia.
It was the best of Phillies times, even better than the period leading up to and including the team’s first World Series victory in 1980.
To be balanced: During Montgomery’s presidency the team lost its 10,000th game on July 15, 2007. There is also a widespread belief that he shouldn’t have approved some of the contracts that are now handcuffing the team as it tries to move into a new era.
For all that, during his now-completed term he took the team from the doldrums to that parade on Broad St. and from that smelly old stadium to one of baseball’s gems.
He oversaw the hiring of some of the best players and executives in the team’s history, some of whom – like Gillick, Thome, Lee and Halladay – are among the best ever in the history of the sport.
Now he’s no longer sheriff. The new sheriff is, however, a man whom he hired. His move from president to chairman, with Giles becoming chairman emeritus, is good for him and for the team.
What’s most important to remember about Montgomery’s tenure and about his continued involvement is the loyalty and decency with which he treated those who worked for his organization, an organization that is one of the most respected in pro sports.
And he’s healthy.