Humble start to Manuel's managerial career

A young Paul Mancuso, who was Charlie Manuel's closer with Wisconsin Rapids, stands by the team bus. The vehicle had a character all its own.
A young Paul Mancuso, who was Charlie Manuel's closer with Wisconsin Rapids, stands by the team bus. The vehicle had a character all its own.
Posted: October 25, 2009

If an opposing hitter swung late on a fastball, the Wisconsin Rapids manager would start crooning an old jazz standard from the dugout - "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

This was 1983, long before that bench-jockeying manager won a World Series and now has the Phillies back in the Series looking to repeat. Charlie Manuel's first managerial job was for a single-A club in a Wisconsin paper-mill town.

"I could fish at night when the game was over," Manuel said Friday when asked about his season managing the Wisconsin Rapids Twins. "I could walk right outside the locker room, there was a river about a block away. I'd walk down there and have . . . a Grain Belt beer, or Old Style. I used to say Old Style was my lucky beer."

If all that sounds like Charlie, understand this was a 39-year-old version. Known as a patient type now, he rarely held back in those days - once challenging his entire team to a fistfight.

But among the losing streaks, interminable bus rides, and squabbles with umpires, team owners and his own players, Manuel learned some of the lessons that helped him mature into a stabilizing influence in the Phillies' dugout.

"To tell you the truth, when I first started managing, I didn't know nothing about the game," Manuel said. "I mean that. About the only thing I knew how to do was play right field, and I played some first base, and I thought I could hit."

In charge of a team of guys all younger than 25, Manuel was all by himself - no coaches - traveling the Midwest League in a beaten-up "jalopy" of a bus. Manuel rarely let on about any game-management ignorance to his young players.

"He was old-school baseball," said Ken Klump, one of his pitchers.

Even if Manuel hadn't gone on to a bigger stage and far more fame, none of his players from that first season would have forgotten their time with Charlie.

"I see him on TV - 'Holy cow, he's so calm.' That was not him that first year," said Kiel Higgins, a pitcher that year, now a police officer in Albuquerque, N.M.

"He did not lack for confidence."

Charlie's rules

Manuel didn't have a lot of rules, his players said. No shorts on the road. Don't be late - that was a big one, even then.

Another of his rules is time-honored in baseball: Don't drink in the same bar as the manager. (Since this was the Midwest League, the rule was waived when the Twins rolled into a town with only one bar.)

"He had a specific way that he wanted his players to play the game - that's 110 percent, all the time - and if he didn't see that, he could get on you," said Paul Mancuso, his closer. "At the same time, he let you get out and play."

After he had retired as a player, Manuel had been a cross-checking scout and roving hitting instructor. He'd work with Twins minor-league hitters for a week, he said, then come back a few weeks later and "they'd be doing the opposite."

To him, that meant the manager was giving opposite hitting instruction. So when Manuel was offered a chance to manage, he liked the idea.

"It was giving me a chance to be around my team, be around the same guys every day," he said.

Manuel had made good money as a home-run slugger in Japan, and he'd tell his players that he didn't need any guff from them, that he was a millionaire and probably the only manager in the minors driving a Cadillac.

But in Wisconsin Rapids, it wasn't a millionaire's life. He had no coaches, no groundskeepers.

"I used to mow the field, put the lines down - I put in the pitching rubber and home plate," Manuel said the other day.

Early that season a pitcher came to him, saying, "I'm telling you, home plate's crooked."

Manuel got upset.

"What are you talking about?," he said. "I put the damned plate in."

But when the manager went out the next day and checked, it was off - "by about 18 inches."

Taking on friend and foe

Taking the game seriously didn't mean keeping quiet. If his own pitcher was having a problem, Manuel's bench-jockeying could get loud.

"You're pitching, and he's in the dugout yelling, 'He walks one more guy, I'm yanking him!' " Higgins said.

And with umpires?

"He'd get kicked out - it usually would end with him saying to the umpire that they should meet after the game to settle things in a more manly way," said Klump, now a nursing-home administrator outside St. Louis. "You're talking about games that had 10 people in the stands - he was the entertainment some of the time."

Before games, Manuel often held team meetings.

"He rode me like a drill sergeant," said Terrill Parham, another pitcher who didn't pitch much, later finding out he had torn cartilage in his knee.

"Charlie's normal deal, he would go around the room giving a critique of how things were going. 'Hey, Jones, you got a couple of hits last night, good.' . . . Next guy - 'You stink, what's your deal, you going to get a hit this week or what?' Come to me - 'Broken-leg Parham, what are you still doing here?' "

Early in the year, Wisconsin Rapids was in a tailspin, falling more than 20 games out of first place.

"One time, he challenged the whole team to a fight," said Mancuso, the closer. "The locker room was small, like 20 by 30, like a little dungeon. We were playing horrible. We had a team meeting. After a while, Charlie said, 'I'm not scared of any of you guys. I'll take the whole team on.' Nobody stepped up."

The flip side, Mancuso said, was that if they had played a game the right way - respecting the game and its traditions - and still lost, Manuel would simply say, 'Get 'em tomorrow.' "

Manuel stood up for his guys. One time, the entire team was fined for a bench-clearing brawl. Manuel thought the franchise, which was owned by the paper mill, should pay the fine, not the players.

"Charlie had his way of thinking about things," Klump said. "He said, 'I would have fined you if you had stayed on the bench during the fight. You shouldn't get fined individually for going out.' "

So Manuel told his players to go home, they were going to forfeit that night.

Later, Klump said, he drove by the field and saw the lights on and the game going. He found out the front office had agreed to pay the fine, and Manuel had rounded up enough players to take the field.

"I just kept going," Klump said. "I wasn't pitching that night."

Method to the madness

Even when Manuel got hot he wasn't necessarily out of control. One time, he got thrown out for arguing a call, said outfielder Mike Verkuilen, now a financial planner in Appleton, Wis.

"It was the bottom of the ninth - we're down a run, I believe," Verkuilen recalled. "He tells me on the way out, 'You bat.' I pinch-hit, hit a two-run home run, a walk-off home run. It was a favorite memory from that year. I go down to the locker room. Charlie's saying, 'I was just getting ready to kick that umpire's ass.' "

The Twins' road trips were vintage low minors.

"The bus, no joke, it was like 1950-something, all chrome, rounded on the top - it was just a hunk of junk," said Parham, the pitcher with the bum leg. "The bathroom was sealed off. The rear seats had been ripped out, you had folding chairs. There was a constant spades game back there. We had a bus driver, an old biker. The bus would fly. Bussie had done it up. We'd go 70 or 80."

The clubhouse was every bit as luxurious.

"I had a desk right in the middle of the locker room," Manuel said. "We had two showers. If you flush the commode, the shower would absolutely scald you. I had a good time."

After the poor start, the Twins got hot in the second half and finished a couple of games out of the playoffs.

Ken Silvestri, who was a backup catcher on the pennant-winning Phillies Whiz Kids team, was the roving pitching instructor that year. According to the Phillies' manager, if he hadn't run into Silvestri, Philadelphia baseball history might be different.

"When I got him, he completely changed not only our team - he taught me more baseball than anybody ever has," Manuel said of Silvestri, who played for the Phils in 1950 and '51 and had roomed with Joe DiMaggio when he was with the Yankees in the '40s.

"He was a big influence on who I became as a manager," Manuel said.

During games, there was no one to bounce things off. Manuel even coached third.

"I remember one specific time, early in the season, we were talking, Charlie apologized to me, he put me out on the mound like five days straight," said Mancuso, the relief pitcher. "He said he didn't really know you couldn't pitch that many days in a row. The pitching part, he started learning. I think that year Charlie learned a lot about generally every aspect of the game. He definitely knew how to hit - he could crush the ball."

Batting practice was always a show. Manuel would take his cuts just about every day, telling his ballplayers that maybe, someday, they'd hit like him.

"The manager of Davenport, Iowa - they got a scouting report," Manuel said. "The guy had me down as a hitter. It said, 'They've got this one guy that looks old. He's a big lefthanded hitter. He takes BP more than anybody on that team.' They actually showed me the report the guy had written out."

On the bus rides, the players heard Manuel's stories from Japan, where he was a wildly successful slugger, competing for home run crowns with the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

"If he was ahead of Oh, they would start calling strikes outside until Oh caught him, then they'd pitch to him," Klump said. "It was orchestrated. They'd call fair balls foul. But I guess Charlie was quite a folk hero. He told us during batting practice he got to hit brand new baseballs."

And there were some taller tales in Manuel's Japan stories.

"They didn't pay me in money, they were giving me oil wells," he'd tell his guys.

And then it ended

Wisconsin Rapids, which never hosted a Midwest League team after 1983, had three players who made it to the major leagues for brief stints, including Danny Clay, who pitched 17 games for the Phillies in 1988.

Of course, those lower-minors Twins also had their manager, who kept moving up the line himself, eventually managing Cleveland, and then brought a championship to Philadelphia.

The stories about Manuel's temper may be the ones they still tell, but his old players also say he could be easygoing and fun-loving. One time, they were on a losing streak so Manuel ordered everybody to the bar after the game. The drinking-in-a-different-bar rule was waived that night. The manager was buying.

"We lost the next day, too," Parham said.

Losing never went down easily. Last year, Parham took his daughters to a Phillies game in Miami. Manuel's team lost to the Marlins that night.

Afterward, Parham and his girls waited by a fence. When he saw Manuel coming out, he yelled out that he had played for him in Wisconsin Rapids.

A couple of hours later, Manuel probably would have bought Parham a beer. But right then, the Phillies manager said, "What about it?"

Another man standing nearby yelled to Manuel, what was wrong with him?

"What's wrong?" Manuel said. "We just lost a damned baseball game."

Parham's daughters were shocked, he said.

And what did he think?

"I cracked up," Parham said. "It was exactly the same way I'd left Charlie 25 years ago."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen

at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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