Andy MacPhail on time with Cubs: I never felt hamstrung financially by Tribune

When the Philadelphia Phillies take on the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field this weekend, they'll do so with a familiar face at the top: Andy MacPhail.

Now 63, this onetime “boy wonder” baseball boss sits in his fourth decision-making chair, having previously led the Minnesota Twins to two world championships and the Cubs to two postseason appearances before building the Baltimore Orioles into contenders.

“I really had an opportunity I couldn't refuse,” MacPhail said by telephone earlier this week. “It was really an ideal situation for me, being the president as opposed to the GM, working for an ownership that enjoys a great reputation in the game, a unique culture among teams.

“I've been with five different teams, and they're all a little different. This is a very family-oriented place. You've got great resources. You have great facilities. It's not going to get any better than that.”

MacPhail accepted the Phillies presidency last summer, and he officially took over in the fall after observing the organization.

The MacPhail era in Chicago was a significant one, and it still stirs strong feelings among fans, both positively and negatively.

He joined the Cubs in the fall of 1994, when the Tribune Co., which owned the team at the time, hired him to bring stability and professionalism to a baseball operation that had turned chaotic.

The Cubs flirted with a playoff run in his first year at the helm. They reached the postseason in 1998 and 2003, coming within five outs of the World Series in 2003.

But there were too many disappointing seasons, and MacPhail resigned on the final day of the 2006 season with the Cubs having accumulated a record of 916 wins and 1,011 losses during his 12 years.

I asked MacPhail how he reflects on his years in Chicago.

“Very grateful for the opportunity, learned a lot,” he said. “It was a unique position. Acting as the president and CEO of a club that was owned by a corporation allowed me to represent ownership and be exposed to things that I could never be exposed to otherwise. You talk about a unique opportunity, the Cubs are one.

“We had 12 seasons there and didn't get to the World Series. We got within five outs but couldn't close the deal. That's probably my only regret. I think we all would have felt that we had accomplished our mission had we gotten those last five outs in '03, but it can be a cruel game sometimes.”

There were two persistent narratives during MacPhail's run as Cubs president (he added the role of general manager in 2000 after Ed Lynch's resignation and held it until giving the GM job to Jim Hendry in July 2002).

One narrative is that the Cubs under MacPhail didn't spend enough on player payroll at the major-league level. The other is that the Cubs should have “blown it up” and started all over, much as they've done under team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer.

“I don't think the payrolls were the issue,” MacPhail said. “We were aggressively trying to improve the infrastructure, whether it was redoing HoHoKam Park (the spring-training facility) or improvements to Wrigley Field. We made investments in the infrastructure of the organization, which I think were helpful.

“The simple truth of the matter is having a high payroll doesn't assure you of anything in terms of wins. I was never ill at ease with the investment we were making in players. I never felt we were ever hamstrung financially by the Tribune.

“We were given the resources to make improvements we thought were necessary. I can't remember one occasion where we thought to ourselves, 'Gee, if we only had the dough, we could get that player.' ”

During his run here, MacPhail always maintained that “blowing it up and rebuilding it” wasn't feasible in a big market such as Chicago.

Back then, the Cubs had hoped to emulate the Atlanta Braves by drafting and developing pitchers. Kerry Wood, Jon Garland and Mark Prior were among the pitchers taken in the first round of the draft — Lynch traded Garland to the White Sox in July 1998 for reliever Matt Karchner.

Pitchers taken in the first round who didn't pan out were Todd Noel, Ben Christensen, Bobby Brownlie and Mark Pawelek.

MacPhail said the scarcity of .500 or better seasons since the 1989 club won the NL East added urgency to win at the big-league level, but he added: “I don't remember us doing things that were short term.”

That said, MacPhail had nothing but praise for the approach Epstein and Hoyer have taken and the results they've achieved after three years of losing at the big-league level.

“I give them a great deal of credit for having the patience and the plan in a tough environment to go the route they did,” he said. “They did what appears to be a masterful job at this point. I don't know that it was necessary for us (to do that).”

MacPhail has said the Phillies job will be his last in baseball, but the MacPhail lineage is likely to carry on for many years in baseball.

Andy MacPhail's grandfather, Larry MacPhail (born in 1890) was a flamboyant executive who brought night baseball to the big leagues. Lee MacPhail, Andy's father, was a front-office executive, president of the American League and the key management figure instrumental in ending the 1981 players strike.

Nowadays, Andy has two sons working in the game, one for the Los Angeles Dodgers and one for Major League Baseball.

There's no doubt MacPhail's personality and methods of doing business mirror his father's calm, deliberate approach rather than that of his grandfather.

“That's for sure,” he said. “My grandfather had an intellect and an entrepreneurial spirit I wish I had. But I certainly wouldn't want the personality.”

About his own legacy, he joked: “I'm not dead yet. Hopefully I'll have a few more years before somebody wraps it up and writes the obituary. I certainly have no complaints. I've been very fortunate. I'm happy that I've got two boys who have decided to make their career in the game of baseball.”

He did tick off a list of things he's most proud of during his tenure in Chicago and ended with a nod toward the Cubs' future.

“My charge was to have us be an effective organization,” he said. “We got to the postseason a couple times. We won a postseason series. I don't think the Cubs had done that since (1908).

“We were drawing routinely over 3 million (fans). Before I got there, the highest the Cubs had ever drawn was like 2.4 or 2.5 million. By the time I left, we were routinely drawing 3 million. I think it was a significant improvement over what had been there before.

“Again, if you don't reach the World Series, you can't claim it to be a 100 percent success because that was the mission, to get the team to the World Series. It looks like that might happen this year.”

• Follow Bruce's reports on Cubs and baseball on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail, left, talks to manager Pete Mackanin before a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail, before a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail, before a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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