When Manuel graduated from high school, several colleges and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, offered him the chance to play basketball. He probably would have done so if possible, but he needed to work. Manuel's father committed suicide two months before Charlie graduated from high school and left a note asking that Manuel help his mother provide for his 10 brothers and sisters.
So, in 1963, Manuel signed a $30,000 minor-league contract with the Minnesota Twins, and he worked at various jobs during the offseason to help out back home. Fifty years of the game, as a player, as a coach, as a manager. Fifty years of putting on a uniform, and no one has to tell Charlie Manuel that doing so once again the following spring isn't a guarantee.
"I know how lucky I've been, how fortunate about how long I've gotten to be in the game that I love," Manuel said. "All the people that I've met, all the places that I've been. I look at that, and I can't even put into words how I feel about it."
This is the final year of Manuel's contract with the Phillies. The accepted logic is that, while he might be offered another role in the organization, 2013 will be his last season as manager. It is assumed that his successor is likely to be Ryne Sandberg, who will coach third base for the Phils this season. If the Phils were to play poorly, the transition could happen even sooner. All of that is possible as Manuel puts on the uniform for another spring.
"I don't worry about my contract. I know I'm 69. I know how long I've been in the game. But I can't say I'm ready to retire because I don't think about it," Manuel said. "I still love what I do, and I know that because of the last few years we've put ourselves in a position where the expectations are a whole hell of a lot different than when I first came here."
In the history of Philadelphia sports, Manuel's record might represent the most sustained period of excellence for any manager or coach. The Phillies have played baseball in this town for 130 seasons and won 49 postseason games in that span. Twenty-seven of those wins, and two World Series appearances, came between 2007 and 2011, as the Phillies won five straight division titles.
You can argue Fred Shero, Dick Vermeil, Andy Reid, Billy Cunningham, Greasy Neale, Dallas Green, Alex Hannum, or Kaiser Wilhelm, but the run the Phillies enjoyed under Manuel compares to any of their accomplishments.
The success wasn't all his doing, of course, but he didn't undo it, either. This spring, he looks at the team about to take the field and sees what it could be if his veterans stay healthy, if his outfield can catch an occasional fly ball, if there is enough power and enough pitching. If this is to be his last year, Manuel wants to leave a memory worth remembering.
"I want this to be the best year I've ever had on a field," Manuel said. "The goal doesn't change. You want to win the World Series, and I'm excited about getting back out there and doing it."
That doesn't mean it will happen, only that 50 years of experience might count for something in the process. It could be that the positives Manuel anticipates don't come through for him. Or it could be that the season will be a success on whatever level, and the organization will still decide it is time for a change. Manuel understands. Baseball gives you time in its leisurely way, but eventually the scoreboard totals are correct.
"That's baseball. The game moves on," Manuel said. "We've had some great guys play and had some great guys manage. Changes are made. That's part of it. But the game will always be there."
For Manuel, the professional game has been there 50 years now. It has been great and enduring and the biggest part of his life as long as he can remember. The game has been good to him, and now it has granted him at least one more spring in uniform. He knows enough about baseball's fickle heart to be grateful.
"At the same time," Charlie Manuel said, "man, it went by quick."
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