CLEARWATER, Fla. — John Middleton knew the opportunity when he saw it. He was 9 years old in September 1964, sitting with his father in the upper deck above third base at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. The Phillies were coasting to the World Series, it seemed, leading the National League by six and a half games with 12 to play.
But in the sixth inning of a scoreless tie with the Cincinnati Reds, the Phillies did not notice what the boy from Havertown, Pa., had picked up: The runner on third, Chico Ruiz, was itching to steal home.
“I looked at my father and I said, ‘Dad, look how far-off the base that guy is — he’s gonna go home!’ ” Middleton said last Sunday, in his office at the Phillies’ training complex. “And the next pitch, he went home. I mean, it was really obvious to me. He just had this extraordinary lead. We were devastated.”
The rest is seared in the psyche of every Phillies fan of Middleton’s generation. Starting with Ruiz’s dash, the Phillies lost 10 games in a row to blow the pennant. It took them 16 more years to win their first World Series, and another 28 to win their next championship. They have not had a winning season since 2011, the year before Bryce Harper, then just 19, reached the major leagues with the Washington Nationals.
More than half a century later, Middleton, the Phillies’ managing partner, has turned to Harper, now a six-time All-Star, to lead them back. On March 2, Middleton signed Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract, the longest, richest free-agent deal in major league history.
It was not the most expensive deal of this off-season: Mike Trout — the Millville, N.J., native whom Harper had tried to recruit to the Phillies — has since signed a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Angels. But Harper’s contract, as a partnership between two parties with no prior relationship, represents baseball’s most lucrative leap of faith. For Middleton, it was an opportunity he could not resist.
“I approach my job as a fan first,” said Middleton, who sold his family’s tobacco business to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, for $2.9 billion in 2007. “The day I stop thinking like a fan, the day I stop feeling that I’m a fan, that’s the day I need to retire.”
A Philadelphia Connection
Now, of course, Middleton has the kind of perks he could only dream about in 1980, when he watched the Phillies win the World Series from the distant 600 level above right field at Veterans Stadium. To complete the Harper deal, Middleton — the team’s control person since 2016 — flew to Las Vegas on his private jet with his wife, Leigh, and met for several hours with Harper, 26, and his wife, Kayla.
It was a deeply personal conversation. The Middletons talked about their 40-year marriage and the challenges of balancing work and family. The Harpers, who met in high school, asked about hospitals and schools they might need when they have children. Harper said he was struck by the way Middleton looked him in the eye, showing an understanding that Harper’s goals for this deal made it a life decision, not just a baseball one.
“Understand that my family means the world to me — my wife, my mom and dad, everybody,” said Harper, who had no interest in an opt-out clause. “I want to be able to sit there and have my kids grow up somewhere, not have to move around and go here and go there when that time comes. For me, this is an opportunity to play somewhere for 13 years and try to understand a city, and be into a city and be part of it. That’s the greatest thing that could ever happen.”
Middleton is the team’s most powerful link to its own history. The team president Andy MacPhail, General Manager Matt Klentak, Manager Gabe Kapler and all of the coaches were hired from elsewhere, with no ties to a proud, provincial city. Institutional memory is important in Philadelphia, and Middleton has it.
“I think Philadelphia fans probably feel that John Middleton’s one of their own,” said Mike Schmidt, the greatest player in Phillies history. “He’s one of our people, one of our guys.”
Can Harper be a Philly guy, too? Growing up in Las Vegas, he said, his father, Ron, set an example as an ironworker that now helps him relate to his new home.
“My dad was blue collar,” Harper said. “He worked from 2 in the morning til 1 in the afternoon, he grinded every single day. It was take your freaking lunch pail to work and do your job. I grew up in a family like that, and if I can be around people like that and my family can be around people like that, then they’ll grow up the right way.”
Chasing an Aura
As well as Harper connected with Middleton and embraced the idea of playing in Philadelphia, he had other interests: He wanted a contract that would eclipse what was then the richest on record, Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal. And Middleton’s emotional ties to his hometown team made him just the kind of owner Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, needed for such an investment.
As data-savvy teams increasingly keep emotion from their decision-making, turning instead to formulaic offers based on cold data, agents have found it harder to appeal to owners’ personal drive. The frenzy of old — with multiple teams bidding aggressively on free agents — has evolved to a painstaking process that often bleeds deep into spring training.
So an owner like Middleton stands out to Boras, who also paired starter Jake Arrieta with the Phillies last March on a three year, $75 million contract. In his conversations with Harper, Middleton mentioned the time he lost a high school wrestling championship on a referee’s bad call.
“He basically personalized his competitiveness,” Boras said. “What’s funny is that when owners have this dynamic, people inside the game are concerned about it. But what it does is, it actually increases winning and it also increases business.
“Look at what Bryce Harper’s done for Philadelphia.”
He has indeed had an effect before even playing a game. The Phillies, who started this decade ranked first in the National League in attendance, dropped to 12th of 15 teams last season, at 2.1 million total fans. In the eight days after the Harper news broke, they sold 340,000 tickets. The apparel company Fanatics said Harper set a record — for any sport — for first-day jersey sales. PlayStation quickly applied an image of Harper in a Phillies jersey to the cover of the video game MLB The Show 19.
“He’s like a rock-star baseball player,” Schmidt said. “From Middleton’s standpoint — or his marketing people’s standpoint — this kid has an aura about him that Mike Trout doesn’t. Now, Mike Trout’s numbers may dwarf his, but this kid sells stuff. He’s had a pretty good career, and age-wise, experience-wise, he’s coming into his heyday right now. I think that’s what the Phillies are banking on.”
A Priceless Goal: Winning
As significant as the off-field benefits may be, Middleton insists he signed Harper solely to win; as long as that happens, he said, the fans will respond. Middleton had declared his intentions in November, when he told USA Today he was prepared to spend money in free agency, “and maybe even be a little stupid about it.” The comment was calculated, Middleton said, to put public pressure on Klentak and his staff.
Klentak was hired after the Phillies posted the majors’ worst record in 2015. They lost 187 games across the next two years, and ruined a promising 2018 season by limping down the stretch to an 80-82 finish. Middleton was “tired of losing,” Arrieta said, and eager to raise expectations.
“Our owners are very smart business people,” Klentak said, referring also to the Buck family, which, like Middleton, owns 48.25 percent of the Phillies. “They understand timing and they understand the nature of baseball and they’ve been incredibly supportive of our process over the last few years, but always encouraging us to explore opportunities that will speed things up.”
Klentak found those opportunities this winter. He added shortstop Jean Segura, left fielder Andrew McCutchen, reliever David Robertson and catcher J. T. Realmuto before spring training. The only task remaining to cap an extraordinary winter was signing a premier free agent: Manny Machado or Harper.
Machado signed with the San Diego Padres on Feb. 21 for 10 years and $300 million, more than the Phillies had wanted to pay him. By then, Middleton had met with Boras in Clearwater, when he possibly became the first owner ever to say these five words to baseball’s most powerful agent: I don’t care about money.
“I’ve made enough money in my life,” Middleton recalled telling Boras. “The only reason I’m talking to you about Bryce is that I believe he’s a special player who can help us win and get my bleeping trophy back. Our bleeping trophy.”
That echoed Middleton’s command to the slugger Ryan Howard in 2009, in the visiting clubhouse in the Bronx after the Phillies had ceded their World Series title to the Yankees. Asked about his vision for Harper, though, Middleton modified his message slightly.
Of course he craves a moment like the one he had last February, when he watched his beloved Eagles win the Super Bowl from a suite with their owner, Jeffrey Lurie. But more than that, Middleton wants the Harper deal to herald a new era. He wants the Phillies — his team, in his town — to be the model franchise.
“That’s what I’d like,” Middleton said. “I look at people all the time in this organization and I just say, ‘Why shouldn’t we be great?’ ”
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