FeatureSeptember 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Behind the Scenes of Philadelphia’s Most Successful Sports Teams

With the man who is all up in their business.

One Citizens Bank Way is quiet at 7:55 a.m. The door marked “Administrative Office” is locked. In 12 hours the 43,647 blue bleacher seats will be teeming with enthusiastic fans; the broadcast booth and newsroom will be abuzz; the dugouts and bullpens will be filled with pinstriped players and all attention will be focused on the diamond under the currently unlit lights. But for now the home of the Philadelphia Phillies is silent and still, except for a few janitors and Richard Strouse, the team’s General Counsel.

Strouse has perfect hair, perfect teeth and perfect manners. He apologizes for his desk — parallel piles of paper emblazed with the Phillies’ logo are topped with tidy Post-it notes filled with the tiniest writing. He is just the right level of modest when posing for pictures, careful to point out that proximity does not equate responsibility when standing with the 2008 World Series trophy. He is 54 years old, tall and lean with a mouth that is always smiling, but only at the corners. Despite a suit jacket and button-down shirt, Strouse is not wearing a tie and the top button on his shirt is left undone. Perhaps it is a subconscious testament — even if intended only for himself — that after 29 years at a major law firm he now has a “cool” job as part of America’s favorite pastime.

Whenever headhunters expressed interest in the Pennsylvania native who established himself as a Senior Partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm, Strouse had a standard line. “Thank you for calling, keep me in mind, I don’t want to go to a different firm. But if you’re calling someday about being General Counsel for the Phillies,’ or, and I will admit, I said Eagles, ‘let me know.’ And then one day, I got the call.”

The dream was never a complete fantasy. When Strouse learned last spring that he was one of about a dozen people being considered to replace the retiring General Counsel and Vice President, Bill Webb, he had already represented the Phillies on numerous occasions. The first in his family to go to law school or even four years of college, Strouse had never intended to spend his entire career with the same company and didn’t hesitate to accept when he was offered the position.

“[Ballard Spahr] is a great firm and gave me a lot of opportunities. But, if I had stayed there I would have been doing more of the same thing. This is a chance to step back and say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do for the next 10 or 15 years of my life?’ I can change gears, change profession, learn new things in a very fun industry with a great group of dedicated, wonderful people.” And that’s exactly what is happening.

As General Counsel Strouse is responsible for overseeing all legal matters connected to the Philadelphia Phillies organization, his job with the team is “very different from working in a firm … There, you’re an expert. If someone comes in with a tax question, they go someplace else and someone else will have that expertise. In this job it could be anything; it’s different every time you get a call. So the best thing you have to learn to say is ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’” Although later, as we pass enough boxes of soft pretzels to keep a High Rise happy, he confesses that the hardest part of the job is actually resisting all the free food.

The most public and intuitive aspect of being General Counsel involves contracts for the 25 (or 40 during spring training and September) guys in uniform that draw the crowds. However, Strouse is careful to clarify that he is often not directly involved with the outrageous deals that garner the most media attention. “I do touch players’ contracts in terms of some of the language and the negotiations of them,” he concedes but asserts, “they have agents and their own lawyers and our baseball administration really does the economics of the negotiations.”

Instead, Strouse is responsible for mediating the legal matters relating to player contracts that arise during their careers as Phillies. “I will be involved in the salary arbitration process,” he explains in reference to the process by which players who fall within the right time frame of service (usually three and six years with some exceptions) can essentially take their employing team to court (or, in this case, arbitration hearings) if they feel that they are not being paid what they deserve. In these instances, Strouse defends the Phillies.

Other issues stem from the guaranteed nature of baseball contracts. Unlike other major league athletes, a baseball player’s contract isn’t void if he gets injured and can’t play, or if a team releases him. Last spring, Phils first baseman Ryan Howard signed a contract that has him earning $125 million over the next five years. Because this is baseball, the Phillies will have to pay up even if, for some reason, he stops playing for the team. That is, unless, there is a specific provision written into his contract. “There are uniform player contracts that are a form that is developed and agreed upon … And there is a provision in the uniform player’s contract that talks about under what circumstance do we not have to pay it out. If you get injured and therefore can’t perform because you were bungee jumping, that’s not on us; that’s on you, so you lose your guarantee.” Knowing this, most players have stipulations written into their contracts to reflect any inherently dangerous pastimes. “They’re individuals just like anyone else and they have specific interests and one person might say, ‘This is very important to me and I want to be able to do this and I don’t want to take the risk that this will void my guarantee in my contract.’ Different people want to do different things.”

It’s not just injury or trade that can interrupt a player’s season and necessitate a meeting with the GC. “If we decided to suspend a player without pay because he did something wrong and we have a right under his contract to say, ‘We don’t have to pay you; we’re suspending you,’ he or the [MLB Players] Union might file a grievance … and I’d be very involved in that.” Although these sorts of potential legal battles comprise the majority of Strouse’s professional interaction with the players, it’s not all economics, injuries and insults; “The Phillies, we’re doing very well now — it hasn’t always been that way — so, actually it’s fun. Players are negotiating that they want us to give them a right to buy so many tickets in premium seating areas for their families. It’s sort of a neat thing that they’re so interested.”

The other game-driven aspect of Strouse’s job involves serving as the legal liaison between the Phillies and Major League Baseball. “It’s interpreting rules; it’s making sure we’re doing what we have to do.” The most prominent instance of this is, without a doubt, policing the Phillies’ drug testing. “There are lots of things you have to do to make sure you’re in compliance with the drug testing, there are certain reports you have to file saying you’ve done things, your trainers have done things … I get the email from Major League Baseball — which might go to the trainers and go to the Assistant General Managers — but it comes to the General Counsel too, saying ‘A reminder that blah blah blah is due.’ Or ‘You must do this and then verify that it’s been done.’ So I have to make sure that they did it. And if they need help in interpreting how to do it or what they have to do then I can offer support.”

He talks like someone who is used to dictations and court reporters and speaking on the record. It’s not that his recollections or revelations sound like contrived sound bites designed for marketing purposes. Rather, his speech is deliberate, even and free of space fillers. He is like an esteemed professor whose words have the authority to quiet a room, even when he’s stressing how new he is to the job (Strouse officially replaced Webb on Dec. 1 of last year) and even when he preemptively downplays the prestige of his job.

He emphasizes that although his office is in a sports stadium, the majority of his work revolves around the business and not the game. Strouse is the Phillies’ details man. He presides over all the unglamorous necessities that most people never even consider. “Intellectual property is a big part of the job that I would not have imagined. It is everything. It is: if we want to sell merchandise with a logo on it we have to have clearance, if we want to change a logo you have to protect that, if some photographer comes and takes pictures here, who owns the rights to those photographs?”

During the regular season, Strouse is responsible for arranging the hotels for away games and the charters to get them there. Like all big companies, the Phillies face lawsuits from disgruntled fans who slipped on wet concrete or claim they were roughed up when being ejected and in these instances, Strouse’s background in litigation serves both him and the team. During the off-season he will be working not only on matters relating to Spring Training and the player development facility in Florida but also preparing for the upcoming season’s tickets and sponsorships as well as finally attending to all the mundane employee policy issues for which he has no time during the busy baseball summer.

Still in his first year, Strouse can do nothing but speculate with enthusiasm on what the recently clinched October baseball will be like. “Will my job change specifically? Yes, it already has. Think about it — let’s assume that we make the playoffs, we don’t know where we’re going or who we’re playing but we will have to go away someplace: San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado. And you’ve got to have hotel rooms in place, you have to have the charters lined up, have to have the arrangements for the owners and other people to go there. All of that, that’s just a very small part of it, but that’s something you have to think about.”

Despite the practiced confidence with which Strouse catalogs his responsibilities, there is a hint of humility at the start of every answer — quickly overshadowed when lingering on topics of law and business but emerging again to dispel any misplaced accusations of celebrity.

“Most people think ‘Oh you’re here … you’re meeting with all the players.’ When I took this job, I remember going home and telling my wife and my daughters. My youngest daughter was jumping up and down saying ‘When’s Ryan Howard coming home for dinner?’ Well, that’s not going to happen,” says Strouse. But then again, when pressed he admits that he has, in fact, met the All-Star — and most of the team.

Most of these introductions came while in Florida this spring, a time Strouse recalls with noticeable nostalgia. “Spring training is awesome. It’s one of the greatest times in the world. It’s spring; everything is renewing, so much less formal. You get to meet the players. You work in the morning; there will be a game in the afternoon. You go watch the game, come back in the fifth inning to check emails and return phone calls and go back to the game,” his voice belaying a sense of wonder at his own fortune for the first time.

But it’s really just the location that distinguishes spring training from the regular season as far as job perks for the Phillies’ General Counsel. Strouse reluctantly confirms the rumor that, should he choose (although his two school-age daughters have prevented him from exploiting this opportunity), he is welcome to attend not only every home game (he need only step outside his office to find himself amidst the fanciest seating in the stadium) but every away game as well. And should the Phillies be so lucky, the deal gets even sweeter: “This is a very, very generous organization so it’s been tradition that in the World Series, for the away games, all full-time office employees and a guest are invited to go. All 200.”

If the Phils make it to baseball’s biggest stage it won’t be Strouse’s first World Series game. His first opportunity to experience the hysteria came last year, just after he learned that after a lifetime as a Phillies fan (to date, his favorite player is right fielder Johnny Callison) he was going to get to work with the organization and, as he jokes with friends, “get paid to watch baseball.” His whole family was invited down to the stadium to meet team executives and watch one of the most important games of the year.

Strouse recalls a story his eldest daughter, a high schooler with more important things to think about than baseball, recounted to him. Prior to attending the game she attempted to empathize with a friend who complained that his parents were insisting he attend a family friend’s bat mitzvah. “I know what you mean,” she said, “my dad is making me go to the World Series.”

 
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