HERE IS THE GENERAL MANAGER'S BOX. It's a glass-enclosed suite with computers and plasma TV screens and rolling swivel chairs, its windows thick enough—the G.M. hopes—that his players don't hear his howls of disbelief. Are you kidding me? No way he swung at that! The box where last season Ruben Amaro Jr. sat and watched his offensive juggernaut stagger through weeks of drought as the pendulum swung and pitchers began to dominate the game once more.
Were you to sketch a character to operate a baseball franchise in the modern era, in this town, you might draw Amaro: grandson of a Cuban known as the Babe Ruth of the Mexican League in the 1940s and '50s, son of the Phillies' Gold Glove shortstop in the '60s, batboy for their world championship team in '80, bilingual Stanford grad, outfielder during the '93 pennant-winning season and 10-year assistant G.M. under Ed Wade and then Pat Gillick. A general manager more in psychic sync with his fan base than his predecessors—more aggressive, more daring, more emotional. How he used to stomp and pout when his name didn't appear in the Phils' starting lineup. "And I wasn't good enough to pout," he'll concede today. How he'd go to pieces as a kid when he lost to his older brother at anything, once beaning David with a hardball for the audacity of beating him in a backyard throwing contest. "He has to win," says David. "He was always the little guy who had to work harder and longer than everybody else. Whatever he has is never quite enough."
Not quite enough when Kid Quantum emerges in 2008 and takes the franchise to only its second championship in 125 years with an MVP performance in the World Series.
Not quite enough, with a seven-game division lead in July 2009, when Amaro just misses prying Tunnelman from the Blue Jays at the trade deadline and comes away with Loose Laser instead, and the Phils ride him all the way to Game 6 in the World Series before succumbing to the Yankees.
Not quite enough, five months later, when Ruben stalks Tunnelman again, surrenders three of his bluest-chippers to Toronto to get him and then, with a pang, decides he must restock the pantry and deals Loose Laser for prospects. Shocking Tunnelman, who finds out three hours before he signs a contract extension with the Phils that he won't have Laser as his wingman.
Not quite enough when the Phillies are 3½ games behind the Braves late last July, and Amaro pulls Late Riser out of his hat in a swap with the Astros, giving the Phillies three No. 1 launchers and triggering a late-season blitz to baseball's best record ... only to be undone by their erratic bats in the National League Championship Series against the Giants.
Not quite enough, so Amaro began to dream again last November. It wasn't an adult major league general manager's dream—none of them had four All-Star-caliber starting pitchers. Hell, it wasn't even an adult Philly fan's dream—none of them, not the rational ones, had any hope of recapturing Lee. No, this was the kind of staff that an eight-year-old left alone with the 40-man rosters of every team would conjure ... the way Amaro's nephew Andrew had one day 10 years ago when Ruben and brother David were preoccupied elsewhere. Staring up in wonder at the massive roster board in Amaro's office, the boy had begun moving the magnetic name strips, making trades, until the two men returned ... and Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson—each in his prime—were the Phillies' new starting pitchers! "Andrew!" cried his mortified father. "What are you doing? This isn't make-believe baseball! This is real! You can't do that!"
But Uncle Rube, he'd only smiled. He'd end up getting pulverized by fans and media when—figuring he wouldn't possibly have the bankroll to satisfy Loose once he hit the open market—he dealt Lee to Seattle in December 2009 with a year left on his contract at a basement-bargain $9 million. The G.M. couldn't gas up or stroll through a sporting-goods store in Philly without being accosted: Why'd you do that, man? Why would you trade Cliff? Lee was the Dirty Harry hurler that they hadn't had in a quarter century, blowing away Yankees Hall of Famers without a blink of his blue eyes. Weird, Loose Laser professed, but he felt more relaxed in playoff and World Series games than he did during the regular season, and the mob in the blue seats, the-roof's-forever-about-to-fall Phils' fandom—sensing the presence of their psychic flip side—pined for him in a way it had no other athlete. That Amaro had handed them Tunnelman, the game's premier ace, seemed almost not to matter.
And now, a year after that heart-aching swap, word had reached Rube: Cliff was over his snit at being cast away. Gotham City and the Lone Star boys were backing Brinks trucks into his Arkansas driveway, but Laser pined for Philly.
But the Phils were maxed out with multiyear contracts. They already had three aces. So what are you doing, Ruben, murmuring on a cellphone with Loose Laser's agent? This isn't make-believe baseball! This is real! You can't do that!