Bob Ford | Manuel in the mold of three immortals

Posted: April 02, 2007

Whitey Herzog won a lot of baseball games as a major-league manager and largely because of that his country manner was considered "folksy," and he was always viewed as a canny, old-school professor of the game.

"A manager needs a good sense of humor and a good bullpen," Herzog said once, and he was blessed for much of his career to have both.

Charlie Manuel has the sense of humor, dry and biting as West Virginia moonshine, but the Phillies have usually left him a quart low on the bullpen part of the equation during his two seasons as manager. There have been plenty of other deficiencies as well.

As has been widely noted, the Phils, despite their improvements, still haven't made the postseason during Manuel's term - which hardly makes him unique here. But because the results have not arrived yet, and because the hard-worn fans need proof before giving their hearts again, Manuel and his country manner haven't yet been elevated to folk status. The usual adjectives are much less kind, and the local dissection of the manager tends to focus on the perception he is a bumbler in the dugout and a generally poor tactician of the game.

"Sometimes, you got to study the game to know what's going on," Manuel said last week in his spring training office at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. "The way we've handled some people, I don't think the media and the fans get to see all of it. I never say anything about the ability we have on the team, but if you look and see some of what we've had, I think we've gotten the most out of guys. And the reason I haven't caught on [with the fans] is just because we haven't won in a long time."

Yogi Berra won a lot of baseball games as a major-league manager, and largely because of that he was considered "colorful," if somewhat unlettered in the English language, but always regarded as a sharp observer of the game.

"You can observe a lot by watching," Berra said famously.

Manuel has watched the Phillies for several years now - he was an assistant in the front office before replacing Larry Bowa - and he has seen plenty. When he put on the uniform here, he saw a team that didn't always play with emotion and maximum effort. He saw a team that had aged badly and didn't pitch very well.

He was given the task of making over the franchise from the standpoint of attitude and performance while still winning more games, which is a pretty difficult exacta to hit.

"When I first got here, I think the fans looked at our players and wanted us to be more like we are now, with guys like Utley, Howard and Rollins. Hustling, running balls out hard, not giving just 50 to 60 percent effort down to first base. They like you to slide hard and play the game hard, and there's nothing wrong with that," Manuel said.

The Phillies have gotten lucky with the development of some players, and they have remained afloat despite a shake-up in the front office. Through the transition, which still has a ways to go, Manuel has been the only consistent lightning rod for the storm of the fans' impatience. New general manager Pat Gillick has been given a pass so far, in part because he merely isn't Ed Wade and in part because he's nearly invisible. That leaves Manuel, who is operating this season on the final year of his contract, an indication that the organization doesn't mind letting the manager take the heat alone.

"My personnel dictates a lot of what I do," Manuel said. "You walk out to the dugout and they say you don't have this guy and that guy and that guy. You look up and, all of a sudden, you've got seven guys in the bullpen and only three are available. Then somebody says, 'Why didn't he get that guy up?' Well, I can't get him up, but I can't tell people that.

"And double-switches?" he said. "I look and see what I've got on the bench and I ask, 'Do I want to put a guy in the game if he pinch-hits for the pitcher if the guy out on the field is better?' I never criticize somebody publicly, but I know my talent. I study them. I see fear and I see when somebody really wants to get after it."

Sometimes Manuel has been let down by players, many of whom are no longer around, and sometimes, apparently, he has been let down by his staff, if the dismissal of three coaches during the off-season is read properly. And sometimes, he does make mistakes himself.

"The ones that nobody sees are the ones that get to me," he said. "I'm a hunch guy sometimes. I've got a matchup sheet and I know everybody's history against lefthanders and righthanders and that guy there on the mound. I've got all that. But I'm not scared to play a hunch and I'm a believer that sometimes you've just got to let the game play out."

How it will eventually play out here for Manuel depends on several things, but, as usual, winning is at the top of the list. If the Phillies get off to a poor start, as they have for the last two seasons, Gillick could easily move Manuel aside in the name of progress.

"Time is a hammer for a manager, the time he has on his contract, but that's not up to me. I can't do anything about that," Manuel said. "I put my focus on the players and on winning. If I do my job good enough, things take care of themselves.

Earl Weaver won a lot of baseball games as a major-league manager and largely because of that he was considered "crafty," although some of his strategies were so unconventional they would have been ridiculed if practiced by someone less successful.

"Nothing matters but what happens on that little bump in the middle of the field," Weaver said often.

If the Phillies perform well on that crucial rise in the infield, Manuel may one day be remembered as folksy, colorful and crafty. If not, well, that is baseball, and Manuel understands it better than most, regardless of what you hear.

"You know what?" Charlie Manuel said. "I sleep good at night."


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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