There is a good deal of George Allen in Paul Owens, the fellow who turned the Phillies from one of the worst teams in baseball into one of the best in five years. He is a master at patchwork, at seeing potential where others see only problems, and his creation adds credence to a developing theory of sport: that to be excellent a team must first be awful.
When Owens became general manager in 1972, the Phillies were en route to losing nearly as many games as they won this season. As a scout and later farm director, Owens had watched the dismal slide from a near-pennant in 1964, and he realized success might well come from doing the exact opposite of what others had done.
"I fired half the scouts," he said. Then, after a month on the job, he fired the manager, and for a replacement looked no farther than the nearest mirror "because I wanted to make sure what I was thinking was right. You cannot operate out of an ivory tower."
Owens decided to build the team around Steve Carlton and four players known only within the innermost core of baseball; a young third baseman named Mike Schmidt; a reformed fullback named Greg Luzinski Ray Boone's son, Bob, and a skinny shortstop who cost all of $2,000 to sign, Larry Bowa. For his manager in 1973, Owens hired the essence of patience, Danny Ozark.
And then Owens began the sort of trading spree only Allen and certain stockbrokers can fully appreciate. Dealing from weakness, he molded a winner. What seemed chaotic at the time seems impeccable logic in hindsight.
"What you do is trade the position you can replace the fastest," he said. Figuring Schmidt would be brilliant, although he struck out 136 times in 132 games and hit .196 in 1973, Owens traded third baseman Don Money to Milwaukee after the '72 season for Jim Lonborg and Ken Brett.
While useful at the time, many of the players Owens acquired helped bring even more talented ones later. For Brett, Owens got Dave Cash from Pittsburgh. For Del Unser and a wonderfully promising catcher named John Stearns, Owens got Tug McGraw. For the popular Willie Montanez, he got Gary Maddox from the Giants. For two more young players, he got Bake McBridge.
And so on, Owens has made 40 reasonably significant deals since the end of the '72 season, for such as Ron Reed and Jim Kaat, Ted Sizemore and Dick Allen. When he lost Cash to free agentry, he signed free-agent Richie Hebner. And watched another of his young draftees, Larry Christenson, win 45 games for the Phils before turning 24.
There seems to be more luck involved in developing a baseball team from almost nothing than there is in building a pro football team from the same position. More obscure, lowround draftees seem to become more successful than in the NFL.
"You have to remember that 85 per cent of everyone we draft is just getting out of high school," said Owens, 53, called "Pope" by friends because his striking resmeblance to the head of the Catholic church. "The NFL drafts 22-year-olds out of college with great coaching."
Although Owens has been more successful with trades than most general managers - and proven once again that splendid teams are excellence - he is not without flaw.
Jay Johnstone ("I saw that guy play in high school," Owens said), Bobby Tolan, Ollie Brown, Tim McCarver and Gene Garber were fine catches after the rest of the baseball world passed. But Dick Allen proved a bad gamble - and the deal for Kaat may yet see Owens the longrange loser.
The end of Allen in Philadelphia became obvious not after the final 1976 playoff loss to the Reds in Cincinnati but when the team clinched the East Division title after the first game of a doubleheader in Montreal several weeks earlier.
"It should have been the happiest part of our lives," Owens said, "for everyone who knew how far we'd come. But Allen stayed in the dugout between games. He wouldn't participate. Whenever he could instill a mental lift, he'd drag us down. From then on, I knew it was either him or me."
For Kaat, who has won 18 games in two seasons for the Phils after winning 235 with the Senators'Twins and White Sox, Owens parted with one of the finest arms he has ever watched throw a baseball, Dick Ruthven's.
"Certainly in the last 10 years," he said. "He has all the physical tools, but hasn't put it all together upstairs. But last year I needed one more proven pitcher to win it, I thought."
Last year, the Phillies followed sporting tradition almost perfectly A first-time winner, they fell quickly to a team that had been in the playoffs before. Still, although they have the home-field advantage for the final three playoffs games this year, they have yet to break free from other teams who became great but could not win a World Series or Super Bowl.
From the former farm director comes the farmy reason for Owens' success: "It's like when you milk a cow, you get the heavy cream on the top. But there's still some good cream a little farther down, and if you're smart it'll turn out to be a little better than anyone else happens to be developing at the time."
And it'll help you build a more productive herd, and elevate another Pope to high stature in his own special world.