The Fish Rots from the Head

“The fish rots from the head.”

Cliches become cliches because they carry such a concentration of truth, their use and reuse is unavoidable.

Isn’t it obvious? We didn’t need Bill Giles to speak up quite so cluelessly to know it, but his remarks that the fans aren’t really unhappy and those who are vocal are basically nut cases offer vivid evidence of the reality.

The one person most responsible for a team’s performance is the owner. Are there any teams out there with strong, committed, savvy ownership that are not successful? Owners put their stamp on the entire culture of the team from the product on the field/court/ice to all of the ancillary activities involved in running the organization. An owner with a passion for victory and a commitment to doing whatever it takes to create a culture of competition and accomplishment, while remembering the fan is the customer, makes all the difference.

The Philadelphia Phillies ownership group is fast becoming the Bill Wirtz of baseball. If, when challenged on burying your head in the sand, you bury it even deeper, loudly announcing that you have your head high above the crowds (or is it in the clouds), then you are telling everyone who depends on you—team employees, players, fans, media, advertisers, and marketing partners—that there is no hope. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)

The Phillies ownership needs to bear in mind, “Legatus non violatur.” (The messenger does not deserve to be harmed.) Listen to what is really being said. Listen to turnstiles slowing. Listen to the silence of the registers as the merchandise doesn’t move. Listen to the tenor of the crowd at games.

Most of the time, even a decent rally at the Cit doesn’t get the reaction it deserves, because the people there aren’t there for the baseball. They’re there for the experience. And the experience loses its luster when the excitement around the team isn’t there. It isn’t fun to be in a building half full of the disenchanted. It was bad enough sharing the big old Vet with expanses of blue seats and the feral cats. It feels somehow worse to see the empty seats in the Cit where fans with tickets never showed up, or even more tellingly, couldn’t find any takers when they tried to give them away. In the sixth or seventh inning, the fans are sprinkled thin, while most who did come have already given up and gone home, discouraged and disenchanted.

Sometimes callers and hosts on talk radio get out of hand. But this is not one of those times. The last time I went without baseball was after the 1996 All-Star year, when it was clear the Phillies ownership had no commitment to their team or their fans. I returned for every game in the last year in the old building and the first year in the Cit because it seemed the Phillies were trying to do the right things. The second year in the Cit, disgusted with the quality of the food and the quality of the on-the-field product, it was half the games. This year, I’m on target to attend six. If you can lose me, you can lose any (every?) one.

The Eagles’ fortunes may wax and wane. But Jeffrey Lurie won’t be sitting back letting the whole thing fall to ruin. When things get shaky competitively (which they may this year) I expect him to have the desire and the will to make whatever changes are necessary.

The Flyers, although owned by a corporate entity, still have a fiery Ed Snider with a passion for the sport. And although I know it is blasphemy, I don’t believe even Bob Clarke is untouchable if the team doesn’t recover from recent missteps.

Sadly, Snider’s grasp of NBA realities isn’t as strong and perhaps his passion is not equal to the task. But remember when Pat Croce, who’s style is 90% passion and commitment, had the Sixers and the city jumping?

The pundits, talk hosts, and the bitter vituperative Phillies fans have it right. The Phillies fortunes will not rise so long as the team is controlled by this ownership group–fat, somnolent, fully blinded by years of interpersonal connections to each other and the combination of dead weight and disenchanted throughout the organization. Complacency in a country club environment dooms the Phillies to serial failure. It leads to bad hires, no accountability, and underperformance at every level.

It’s hard to get rid of an owner. It’s even harder when there is an ownership group, with disparate levels of financial and personal stake and various stages of life. There is little hope of change here. The only option, Phillies fans, is to just stay home. This organization doesn’t hear you. They hear each other’s self-satisfied murmurings and their hands slapping each other on the back, chummy style. From you they hear only your money. Stop handing it over.


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