Bob Ford: Phillies' Manuel facing baseball's cruel cycle

Posted: August 05, 2012

Charlie Manuel was sitting behind his office desk in the familiar calm of a baseball afternoon. Elsewhere in the ballpark, players were doing conditioning work or dawdling away the time before batting practice with television and the Internet. Clubhouse boys shined shoes. The grounds crew groomed the warning track.

"Those two pictures right there," Manuel said, leaning forward to point out photographs framed on the wall across from the desk. "That was the tops."

The photos are aerial views of the parade that closed Broad Street in 2008, the enormous sea of red and relief that streamed southward toward the red brick ballpark like a great river to the waiting sea.

"That's the biggest thing in my career," he said, swiveling back in the office chair, "and it couldn't have happened in any place hungrier for a World Series."

Manuel was being asked about the uncertain future, but the conversation always rounded the bases and returned home to the past. The Phillies are living through the natural by-product of extended winning in major-league baseball - losing. The team that blossomed has either aged on the vine or become too expensive to maintain in one piece. Wait long enough and injuries will happen, luck runs out, prospects falter, magic disappears, sinkers rise, and batting averages fall. It is baseball.

"We was down in Atlanta, and I looked at those flags they got out there. That's not going to happen again, not with free agency and the money situation," Manuel said. "It has to come to an end now, and I knew it was coming here somewhere down the line."

The end was confirmed during that series in Atlanta - where the flags of 14 straight division championships flutter beyond the outfield. The Phillies, listless and clumsy, were swept by the Braves, and two days later the team traded Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. continues to pick away at Manuel's roster like a bird at a feeder, saving money where he can to invest in that elusive future.

Two floors above, while Manuel sat in his office before Friday's game, Amaro was completing a deal to trade pitcher Joe Blanton to the Dodgers. Amaro would later say that he isn't finished trying to make moves, and Manuel understands how it works. He will have to manage what remains, even if it isn't very good, and even if the desire to get a look at younger players means he won't always field his best possible lineup.

"I definitely need to communicate more with the players, walk around and talk to them, because they don't know what to expect now," Manuel said. "I pulled Juan Pierre in the other day and told him what we're going to be trying to do and that it's probably going to cut into his playing time. You have to be honest."

Manuel is honest, and has seen enough to be honest with himself as well. He knows the organization has decided it is time to turn the page on the previous stretch of winning and admit that it has run its course. There are other pages that can be turned and other fresh starts to consider. Manuel knows all about that.

"I totally understand how it works in baseball. The organization sits down and figures out what they think is best, and that's what they do . . . somewhere along the line," Manuel said. "I asked for a two-year contract and the reason is that I know my age. I'm 68. I'll be 69 in January. Eventually, you're going to hear people talking about your age. I'm starting to hear it now. I'm not losing my desire, not at all, but I totally understand everything."

Manuel signed a two-year contract extension before last season. It expires after the 2013 season, so the Phillies have to either extend him again this coming offseason or let him manage as a lame duck. To be honest, as honest as Manuel is with himself, neither sounds that likely. Maybe a one-year extension, but maybe not.

These are the days that were always coming, even as the red tide surged toward the ballpark and ended up in the photographs on Manuel's office wall. Nothing lasts and the manager can sense the shifts long before most.

"You watch players and you see changes in them, and you see changes that aren't good," he said. "I'm not trying to cut on anybody or pick out one guy, but you see it coming. As a player, you got to want to play. You got to want to hit. You got to want to pitch. It's human nature that it gets taken for granted. You can see it if you're around the players a lot. It's hard to tell them because some of them don't realize it, but some of them don't want to admit it, neither. Money changes you."

Winning and championships and money beget change, but mostly it is the passage of time that brings change, and it is time that has caught the Phillies in this rundown between what they were and what they will become. Time does all that. Streaks start and stop, players come and go, photographs are hung on the wall and then removed to make way for the next set of memories.

"That was great, but I don't think that's the reason I'm still in it," Manuel said, looking at the photos on the wall. "Baseball is just something I have absolutely loved ever since I was a kid."

He paused and straightened some papers on the desk, scouting reports and other wild guesses about the future.

"It's hard to explain," he said.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

 

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