Banquets a labor of love for Phillies' Manuel

Charlie Manuel: baseball lifer
Charlie Manuel: baseball lifer
Posted: January 26, 2011

WYOMISSING - The scene is as old as the sport: a huge function room in a hotel, a long dais against one wall, food, drink, meet, greet, January. Charlie Manuel has eaten a variation of the same meal a couple of hundred times by now in his baseball life.

This will be his 49th season drawing a paycheck from the game. The first came from a place called Wytheville, Va.

"The way we pronounced it was 'With-ville,' " Manuel was saying. It was a dot on the map in southwest Virginia, not unlike the place where he grew up. He was a 19-year-old kid with a wife and a son and some money in his pocket, playing rookie ball in the Minnesota Twins organization.

His most famous teammate on that team was Reggie Smith, who ended up having a very nice career, mostly with the Red Sox and Dodgers. His manager at the end of that first season was Jack McKeon. The way the cities on the loop were arrayed amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, they would sometimes stop at home between road games. When they stayed in hotels, Manuel said, they were "a little mediocre, kind of the low end of the road."

"On those days when we came home after the game, we got 50 cents' meal money," he said. "If we stayed overnight, you got a dollar-and-a-half. It wasn't like we were breaking the bank. But it was baseball.

"I can remember a lot of it like it was yesterday. I couldn't believe it. I was playing baseball for a living."

Standing there, talking, Manuel is the manager of the team that everyone has pronounced as the favorite to win the World Series. It is easier this season to sell sunshine than it has ever been, which is what these banquets are all about.

Outside the room where Manuel is standing is a man from Tamaqua who is wearing a red Phillies cap and bearing this coincidence: his birthdate is Jan. 4, 1944 - the same as Manuel's. He says the only other person in the organization he ever met was Rich Ashburn, and he is dying to meet Manuel, who is still inside doing the media rounds.

He is replowing familiar ground, about Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. He is still not revealing his lineup. He says he is excited. He says, "It's going to be good. If we stay away from injuries, it's going to be exciting."

Still, for some reason, it is easy to be drawn back. The man has lived a baseball life, and the game on the field still excites him - as much, he says, as those months in Wytheville (where he hit .358 in 58 games).

"We had a lot of players and they cut a lot," Manuel said. "When I first got there, I felt like we had about 70 players. They were cutting guys every day. They would stop the bus and release some guys and let 'em off. You never knew when it was going to be you. Really."

Really.

"The competition was better than I was used to,'' he said. "It was much better than high school. I ended up having a good year, and it was exciting. To me, it was like playing in the big leagues."

The big leagues would come later for Manuel, and only intermittently, followed by a second career playing in Japan. Back in Wytheville, the idea that he would spend a lifetime in the sport was the farthest thing from his mind.

"I could never have imagined this," he said. "I could have imagined that I always would want to be a player. But I think the coaching and managing part of it, I never considered that when I was young. I just absolutely loved to play.

"If I hadn't gone to Japan, I don't think I ever would have ended up being a coach or a manager or staying in baseball at all. In Japan, I became a very positive, upbeat person and really dedicated to what I was doing. That made me realize how much I really like it, and what a passion I had for it, and how I wanted to stay in it."

Soon, the banquet would begin. Offseason family time is a baseball person's most precious commodity, but events like last night's are part of the deal. Manuel has done them forever, for a bunch of organizations. He says this stop for the Reading Phillies has become one of his favorites.

He says, "It's just meeting people. To me, that's always been OK."

A few minutes later, just before the start of the banquet, Manuel was shaking hands and chatting with the guy from Tamaqua, who shared his birthday and his love of sunshine in January.

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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