Rich Hofmann: Phillies manager Manuel deals with grief in his own way

Posted: October 11, 2008

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, on the day they buried Charlie Manuel's father, his high school baseball team was scheduled to play a game in Charlottesville, about 50 miles away from his home in Buena Vista, Va. His coach, Charlie Kurtz, told him to skip it.

"Let me tell you about that day of the funeral," Kurtz was saying yesterday, on the phone from Staunton, Va. "His father had been a Pentecostal preacher. The family really didn't have much money. When he died, it had been a terrible situation for them.

"The game's in Charlottesville - 45, 50 miles from Buena Vista. But he insisted on playing. He went to the funeral in the morning and he made it to the ballgame that afternoon. He not only made it - he hit a big home run.

"And after he hit it," Kurtz said, "you want to know what he said to me? He said, 'I did that for my dad but, more important, I did it for my mother.' "

His mother, June Manuel, died yesterday at the age of 87. Manuel worked as usual, managing the Phillies to an 8-5 win in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Last Sunday, sitting in his office at Miller Park in Milwaukee after the Phillies clinched the NL Division Series, Manuel looked down at his vibrating cell phone. "It's my mother," he said. "I'll call her back in a minute."

On Tuesday, she suffered a heart attack. Yesterday, just hours before the game, Manuel received the word that she had died. That he stayed to do his job surprised no one who knew him. That he will deal with this in his own way and likely leave everyone feeling that they have not been shortchanged is also the operating assumption - because that is just the man's personality. Oh, and his history.

"He was not only a loving son for his mother," Kurtz said. "He was also her protector. I'll never forget when he signed his first professional contract with the Minnesota Twins and he got the bonus check. I took him down to the bank and he put half of the money in his checking account and half of the money in his mother's account. That was the relationship. He protected her.

"They are a large family, 11 children. They have stuck together. Charlie assumed the role when his father died. Charlie stepped up to the plate there. He assumed the leadership role. He knew what he had to do."

Not surprisingly, Manuel chose not to do any interviews yesterday either before or after the game. While his team dressed and showered, Manuel was on the telephone with family members, working out funeral arrangements that remain incomplete. The club said he would travel with the team to Los Angeles.

Down the hall from Manuel's office, while the manager talked to his family on the phone, centerfielder Shane Victorino met his father in another office to hear some more terrible news: that his grandmother had just died in Hawaii. He was consoled in his locker by a succession of players and coaches.

The collision of real life and the baseball fantasy world is never easily reconciled. To speak about them in the same sentence rings painfully hollow. But it still somehow made sense when third baseman Greg Dobbs said, in speaking about Manuel's day, "We all knew quietly that the best thing we could do for our skipper was to play a hard-fought game."

It is what they do, what they know. They are the only people for whom sports really is real life.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that he stayed, knowing him like I do," Kurtz said. "I still remember that day of his father's funeral. I remember the home run, and what he said. The way I figure it, he has a family in Philadelphia now, too - the Phillies. But he won't neglect his family in Buena Vista, either.

"Charlie lost a sister about a year ago, but there are still 10 of them living. He won't neglect them. But today? Like I said, I support that he worked and I'm not surprised that he worked.

"He can get a little heated at times," Kurtz said. "I'm sure you people have seen that. But he is also able to show a lot of common sense when dealing with life. Anybody who knows him knows that life has not always been kind to him. But he has always been able to weather the storm and succeed."

With that, and with their manager, the Phillies' first bus to the airport was scheduled to leave at 9:25 last night. *

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