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Phillies take gentler route with Manuel

by Jerry Crasnick
December 23, 2004

ANAHEIM—Charles Fuqua Manuel, the 50th manager in the history of the Phillies, is a big, burly, lovable bear of a man, with an undeniable passion for baseball and a syntax all his own. He doesn't engage you in conversation so much as envelop you, drifting from one topic to the next with the momentum of a train on a whistle-stop tour.

"I am exactly what I am," says Manuel, describing his approach to life and his profession. "I have my own style. I build confidence. I'm a motivator. I have a lot of charisma about me, and I want to enforce that on my club."

His bio sheet says he's a native of Northfork, W.Va., but that's a technicality, really, because he was born in the family vehicle while his mother was on her way to somewhere else. As one of 11 children, he had an incentive not to dawdle. If he was shy or tongue-tied, someone else was bound to blurt out, "Pass the biscuits," first, and he would be fresh out of luck.

Manuel played six years in the majors as a spare outfielder with the Twins and Dodgers before moving on to better things in Japan, where he hit 192 homers in six seasons and made some serious coin. Even today, he'll be out and about and someone will remember him from his tenure as a Yakult Swallow, and he'll greet the acknowledgement with a smile and a vise grip of a handshake.

In Cleveland, Manuel played a major role in the development of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and other Indians on the farm, and managed the Tribe to 91 victories and a division title in 2001. But when he approached general manager Mark Shapiro with an ultimatum for a contract extension, the Indians fired him and replaced him with Joel Skinner.

He overcame a slew of health problems, including two heart attacks, a cancerous tumor and a bout of diverticulitis that required him to wear a colostomy bag for three months. Then he spent two years biding his time, roaming the minors as a consultant with the Phillies and keeping a low profile while the big club failed to live up to expectations.

Now Manuel has a second chance, and he's approaching it with the fervor that his father, a Pentecostal preacher, once displayed at tent revival meetings.

"I'm a very high-passion, in-love-with-baseball kind of guy," Charlie Manuel says, and you can't help but nod in agreement.

Skepticism Abounds

Convincing the people of Philadelphia that he was the right man for the job will take some perseverance. When the Phillies named Manuel their new manager in early November, he was already in a 0-2 hole. Against Randy Johnson. At twilight.

After the Phillies fired Larry Bowa, Jim Leyland campaigned openly for the job, and lots of people in Philly wondered why GM Ed Wade would pass on a cigarette-smoking sage for a recycled bumpkin. Respected Philadelphia columnist Bob Ford called Manuel the sixth best candidate for the job—behind Leyland, Grady Little, Jim Fregosi, Buddy Bell and Don Baylor.

There's a perception that Manuel was the handpicked choice of Thome, an assertion that player, manager and organization all dispute. But whatever the Phillies say, it's clear that a major selling point for Manuel was his stylistic contrast to his predecessor, Bowa.

The Phillies had a variety of problems last year, from injuries to mediocre starting pitching to an excessive reliance on the long ball. But the most nettlesome concern of all was the lingering disconnect between the players and the men who dressed across the hall. Far too many Phillies regarded Bowa as overly negative and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan as overly condescending. Now the Phillies have replaced Bowa with his diametric opposite: Mr. Sunshine.

"The more you know this man, the more you like this man," club president David Montgomery told reporters at Manuel's introductory press conference.

The Nickname Meister

Manuel, who had a fondness for "rasslin' " in the clubhouse in Cleveland, believes a little positive reinforcement goes a long way. No one knows that better than Thome, who blossomed into a power hitter in the minors through Manuel's helpful hints and constant encouragement. "He made you feel like you were on top of the world when you were in the batter's box," Thome said last summer.

Manuel's enthusiasm manifests itself in any number of ways. He's been known to show up at the park for night games at 9:30 a.m., when Lord knows what he does to keep himself occupied. He's worn out more copies of Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting" than he can remember.

And when he wasn't wrapping players in headlocks in Cleveland, he peppered them with nicknames. Kenny Lofton was "Sugar Loaf," Thome was "Ptomaine Poisoning" and Jaret Wright was "Jughead" because of his sizable melon.

Even former Indians GM John Hart got a nickname. When things were going well Manuel referred to his boss as "Hart throb." When they weren't going well it was "Hart attack." And come contract time Manuel would see his boss and proclaim, "I need to talk to the Hart foundation!"

Charlie Manuel is, in the words of John Hart, "an absolute beauty."

Old-School Ball Guy

In the classic old-school vein, Manuel also looks for every edge he can get. Hart loves to tell a story from 1984, when he was managing in a one-game Southern League playoff against Manuel. Hart's Charlotte team took a big early lead against Manuel's Orlando squad when it began raining. As Hart waited in vain for the tarp to come out he looked over at Manuel, who threw up his hands in apparent disbelief. It turns out dumb ol' Charlie had slipped the head groundskeeper $50 to go home.

Hart believes that Manuel's fractured speech pattern masks a sharp baseball mind, and several players who've flouted a rule or crossed Manuel can attest to his toughness. The list of offenders includes Albert Belle, who got a face-full of Charlie when he acted petulant in Cleveland.

Manuel prefers to make his point in the privacy of his office, but he'll do it in the dugout or on the field if necessary. "I don't like it when somebody calls me a soft manager," Manuel says. "I want them to call me a loose manager or a relaxed manager, because when you call me a soft manager, that makes it sound like I'm not tough."

If the Phillies don't win, their fans will regard Manuel as the second coming of Gomer Pyle. If they win, he'll be a local hero. After 11 years without a playoff appearance, the people of Philadelphia care about results and nothing more.

"They're starving for a winner," Charlie Manuel says.

And the pride of Northfork is in a hurry to oblige.


Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to jerrycrasnick@baseballamerica.com.

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