WASHINGTON – There’s a lot more to Charlie Manuel than people see on television. In fact, the Charlie Manuel people see on TV is not the same one the writers and players see every day. That guy is verbose and uncomfortable in his own skin. He isn’t the kind, patient and quick jokester that people behind the scenes see.
Maybe that’s part of the act or part of the homespun manager’s charm? Maybe Manuel’s uneasiness that has made him a target for so many slings and arrows has allowed his players to escape their errors and miscues behind a façade of stutters and malapropisms.
Could he be that diabolical?
Probably not. Often with Manuel, what you see is what you get. But at the same time…
“When it comes down to [crunch] time, I’m going to do what’s right,” Manuel predicted last season.
For the second season in a row the Phillies have taken the season down to one final do-or-die weekend. If they can survive one more game against the Nationals and three in Miami against the Marlins and
get some cooperation from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Phillies will capture the National League’s wild-card spot. If not, well, the Phillies certainly made it interesting. That’s especially so after general manager Pat Gillick jettisoned veterans Bobby Abreu, David Bell, Rheal Cormier and Cory Lidle then told fans to wait until the year after next season.
“It will be a stretch to say we’ll be there in ’07,” Gillick said on July 30. “We’ll have to plug in some young pitchers and anytime you do that you’ll have some inconsistency.
“It’s going to take another year.”
Yet in two seasons at the helm in which the Phillies will be in contention until the very final out of the season, Charlie Manuel has been ridiculed, questioned and put down. His intelligence has been questioned and his Appalachian drawl has been made fun of in a manner that can only be described as mean spirited and personal. It seems as if people believe Charlie is dumb because of the way that he sounds – never mind that some of these critics of Manuel’s baseball acumen have thick, undecipherable accents that can only be heard in Philadelphia.
So Manuel takes the insults and keeps going. Aside from leading the Phillies to the doorstep of the playoffs and getting closer than any of his predecessors had in the past 13 years, Manuel has won more games in his first two seasons than every manager in Phillies history except for Pat Moran. More than 90 years ago Moran won 181 games and took the Phils to the World Series in 1915.
But Moran had Grover Cleveland Alexander anchoring his staff, while Manuel has Jon Lieber and Brett Myers – hardly pitchers destined for the Hall of Fame. Sure, Cole Hamels, all of just 22-year old, may one day be a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher, but right now he’s an inconsistent rookie.
Yet maybe therein lies the genius of Charlie Manuel. Not only can he get the most out of Lieber and Myers, as well as players like Shane Victorino and Chris Coste, but also he can be deemed as a poor manager for winning. When has that ever occurred with the Phillies?
Along those lines, when have the words “Charlie Manuel” and “genius” ever been used in the same sentence?
The secret to Manuel’s success might be the rapport he has with his players. On one side he appears to be everybody’s favorite uncle always picking players up with positivity and kind words when things aren’t going well. Often, when he lumbers with his distinctive gait through the clubhouse, he stops to joke with a player or ask them about how things are going away from the field.
Then there is his loyalty to his players that is sometimes criticized by the fans and media, but always respected by the players. Rarely will Manuel speak poorly of a player in public, and his critique of his team’s sometimes shoddy play is always peppered with language about how “we” have to play better.
Or he’ll make a joke, like with hyped-up rookie Michael Bourn whose excitement and greenness caused the Phillies trouble on the base paths a time or two this week.
“I might have to put one of those shock collars on him,” Manuel laughed.
Though Manuel is an old-time baseball man who speaks fondly of playing with Harmon Killebrew and for managers Billy Martin and Walter Alston, his approach is hardly "old-school" in the sense that former Phillies managers Larry Bowa, Jim Fregosi and Dallas Green wore that label. But as long-time old-school baseball man Johnny Pesky, the 87-year-old treasure for the Boston Red Sox, points out, modern ballplayers don't need a manager to motivate them.
"These guys are making millions of dollars and they don't need somebody screaming at them to make them play better," he said.
Manuel understands that treating a player with respect and a little humanity is the best tact.
That method is hardly fullproof, though.
Perhaps Manuel has stuck with Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal longer than he should have in the final month of this season. Perhaps he should have turned to Coste or David Dellucci and Jeff Conine much sooner than he has. But don’t think for a moment that Manuel’s loyalty has gone unnoticed by his players.
But do not mistake Manuel’s kindness for weakness, pitcher Randy Wolf warns.
“Charlie is a great guy. He’s friendly and really cares about his players. He’ll do anything for us and wants us to trust him,” Wolf said. “But he is not soft. You don't want to cross him because he'll let you know about it.”
Jim Thome liked to tell the story about the time in Cleveland when Manuel removed the ping-pong table from the Indians’ clubhouse when he thought the players were too focused on table tennis than baseball. Then there was the time earlier this season when the Phillies were sleepwalking through another April loss in Florida when Manuel ordered his players back into the dugout before they could take the field and launched into a tongue-lashing that proved to be the impetus to a nine-game winning streak during a stretch where the team won 13 of 14 games.
So maybe there is a method to Manuel’s madness?
Just don’t ask him to explain it with the cameras rolling.
Labels: Charlie, Pat Gillick, Phillies