Olympian leans on an old friend - Charlie Manuel

Former Indians first base coach Ted Uhlaender was hired by Charlie Manuel when he managed in Cleveland. Uhlaender came up in the Twins minor-league system with Manuel in the 1960s.
Former Indians first base coach Ted Uhlaender was hired by Charlie Manuel when he managed in Cleveland. Uhlaender came up in the Twins minor-league system with Manuel in the 1960s. (MARK DUNCAN / Associated Press)
Posted: February 13, 2014

Charlie Manuel has studied the young woman's face and knows where she got it. She is only 29 years old, but Manuel has seen the same face for more than 50 years, going back to when he met Ted Uhlaender at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., during Manuel's first professional instructional league season.

They were alike, the rawboned Appalachian kid and the Midwestern farm boy, and they became best friends on their long trek through the Minnesota Twins minor-league system.

Both made it to the majors, the friendship endured and tightened through the decades, and Manuel eventually hired Uhlaender as his first-base coach when he managed the Cleveland Indians.

So many years and so many memories came back for Manuel when Uhlaender died of cancer in 2009. And now the daughter, an Olympian competing in Sochi, comes back, too, not in memory, but occasionally at the door of Manuel's home. She wants to sit and drink a beer and hear about her father. She brings that face, with the same broad nose and high cheekbones, the same penetrating eyes. Daughters seek out fathers. Katie Uhlaender sought out Charlie Manuel.

"I've known Katie since she was a little girl. She looks just like Ted, and is just like him, just as tough and determined. If she says she's going to do something, she's going to do it," Manuel said. "She used to come and see me whenever she started missing her father. She wanted to ask me things about him, and she wanted to hear all the stories."

Katie Uhlaender has stories of her own now. She took up the sport of skeleton about 10 years ago and quickly found she was good enough and brave enough to slide down a sheet of ice at up to 90 miles per hour with her chin just inches from the track.

Uhlaender is with the U.S. team in Sochi on her third trip to the Olympic Games. The women's skeleton competition begins Thursday with two heats and finishes up its medal rounds on Friday. Uhlaender, who missed most of the World Cup season recovering from a concussion suffered in a training crash, isn't a favorite, but she wasn't a favorite to get this far, either. Like the father who had to take extra hitting and work on his game every day in order to keep going, Uhlaender doesn't mind being overlooked.

"I can't guarantee I'm going to win," she said at the Olympic media summit in Park City, Utah, before leaving for Russia, "but I can guarantee I'm going to make it real hard to lose."

"She's got that same stubborn way about her that Ted had," Manuel said.

Katie Uhlaender grew up in McAllen, Texas, hard by the Mexican border south of San Antonio, and when she wanted to play baseball against the boys, her father supported her and made sure it happened. Throughout her young life, he supported Katie as she pursued skiing and as she finally found skeleton. Working then as a scout for the Giants after three years on Manuel's coaching staff, Ted Uhlaender went to every event he could make.

The daughter worked her way onto the U.S. team for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, where she finished sixth, and then her career blossomed with a pair of gold medals at world championship competitions and two consecutive World Cup season titles.

And then Ted got sick. It was bone cancer and he faded quickly. Katie Uhlaender wanted to stop competing to be with him, but he wouldn't have any of that. Ted Uhlaender died in February 2009 and Katie's life began to come apart.

"He made me feel like a warrior with a purpose," she said. "And when he passed away, I didn't have a purpose."

More than just that, she shattered her kneecap and would eventually require four surgeries. She also had hip surgery and lost some of the sponsorships that kept her afloat as her world ranking tumbled. She still made the U.S. team for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, but she was an emotional mess. Unsure of the point of continuing, she finished 11th.

"It's been a long road back," she said of coming to terms with her father's death. "I'm finally able to embrace the tools he gave me."

Manuel knows about those. He first saw them on a baseball field and now he sees them in the young woman who comes asking about her father.

"She ain't going to quit. She would never quit anything," Manuel said.

The odds aren't with her, but that's all right. She made the team and so she has a chance. When she competes, there is a chain around her neck that holds Ted Uhlaender's 1972 National League championship ring from the Reds and a small baseball-shaped locket that contains some of his ashes. Those are tucked into the racing suit near her heart.

The daughter still wants to be like the father. She wants to hear the old stories and know him even better, and she has sought out those who knew him best. They look at her and see the old man. It is in her face, of course. Anyone can see that. But it's really there in her heart. Not too many are close enough to know that.

"I know this. I wouldn't be betting against her," Charlie Manuel said. "That right there would be a mistake."


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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