Phillies' Charlie Manuel has the respect and the success

Posted: April 01, 2013

I must have written something positive about Charlie that day because as I recall, I was getting roasted. I got on the phone with them and we had a spirited but respectful discussion.

I remember this because within days of it, La Russa's Cardinals began an epic slide that included an early August losing streak of eight games and another seven-game losing streak at the worst time imaginable, during the final 2 weeks of the season. St. Louis salvaged a playoff spot with two of three wins in the final weekend over the lowly Brewers, finishing with 83 victories to win the weak NL Central, but they looked like dead meat heading into the postseason. More on that later.

Despite losing a whopping 21 games by five runs or more over that 2006 season, Charlie's Phillies went 45-30 over the second half and won 85 games to finish 12 games behind the Braves in the NL East. It was the second of seven consecutive seasons in which Manuel's Phillies teams won 85 games or more, a streak that ended last season when they played chunks of their season without the middle of their lineup, the ace of their staff, two key cogs in the back end of their bullpen, and traded two of their three All-Star caliber outfielders before the trade deadline for bit pieces and minor league talent.

And still the Phillies made a late run before finishing 81-81.

"There's zero panic," Kyle Kendrick was saying in front of his locker the other day. "You can feel it as a player. I've been here with him as a player since '07. And I've never seen him panic."

"We are a very, very good late-season team," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "And part of that is a product of Charlie. He has an uncanny poker face. The guy is so steady. The sky could be falling. And he's very, very steady. That doesn't mean he's not hissed off. That doesn't mean he's not emotional. But how he presents himself to the people that work for him - I think that steadiness really serves us well."

Yet Manuel, 69, enters his ninth season as the Phillies manager with an expiring contract and no assurances beyond this season, with some members of the media, most notably WIP morning-drive king Angelo Cataldi, irked that he has not been replaced as manager by Ryne Sandberg, now his third-base coach.

Manuel has won more games as Phillies manager than any other manager in the team's unimpressive history and has taken the Phillies to two of the seven World Series they have been to in 130 years. Only once, when he was fired midseason by the Cleveland Indians, has one of his teams failed to win at least as many games as it has lost.

"Whether you realize it or not, I can evaluate our team," Manuel said the other day in Clearwater, Fla. "I think that I am the best evaluator. I think when Pat Gillick first got here and got his job he said I was one of the best evaluators in baseball. If you want to know the truth, I think that goes real silent around here. I don't hear it."

The Phillies won the World Series as underdogs in 2008. Since then, and under Amaro Jr.'s reign, they have built teams with greater win totals, teams that might have been favored to beat that 2008 team, but have fallen short. More maddening still is their regression: a World Series loss in 2009 to the world champion Yankees; a National League Championship Series loss in 2010 to the world champion Giants; and a National League Division Series loss in 2011 to the world champion Cardinals after finishing the season with 102 victories.

And, of course, last year's third-place, 81-81 finish.

Over that stretch Manuel has gone from credited to criticized, from celebrated to cursed. Lauded in 2008 when Brad Lidge didn't blow a game, Manuel's late-inning game-management skills are the main focus of much criticism, and at times, well-deserved.

Sandberg has impressed as the Phillies' Triple A manager and has interviewed for a few other major league jobs. Said Amaro Jr.: "Everybody thinks just because Ryne is here and part of the organization that the natural order of progression is that Ryne is going to be the next manager of the Phillies . . . That's not the reason he's here. He's here because he's a good baseball man. And he can help our club. That's the way I view it."

Manuel seems to feel that way, too: He and Sandberg appear to genuinely have great respect for each other. The manager also seems comfortable with new hitting coach Steve Henderson and assistant Wally Joyner, embracing an idea that he once scoffed at after I wrote a column during the 2011 World Series praising the Cardinals' use of hitting coaches.

But that's another part of Manuel that often "goes silent" around here. After more than 50 years in the game, he still doesn't need to be the smartest guy in the room. Even when he sometimes is.

"You know what he is?" Ryan Howard said. "He's a standup guy. He's not going to back down from you and he's going to stand behind whatever decision that he made. And if he makes a mistake, he's not afraid to admit it. He's not a politician. He's just straight-up baseball. He wants his guys to go out there and have fun and play the game. Play to win. That's all he cares about. He's not into all the other stuff."

And as for La Russa? After nearly blowing the division, St. Louis rallied and won the 2006 World Series, then won again in 2011. Both times they did so as underdogs, with regular-season win totals of 90 or less. In 2004, when the Cardinals won 105 regular-season games, they were swept in the World Series by the Red Sox. Managing similarly heavy-favored Oakland teams in the late 1980s against the Dodgers and Reds, La Russa lost eight of nine games played.

The point is, it happens to even the best managers.

Or, as Manuel has said countless times:

"Funny game, baseball."


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