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October 4, 2008
On the Beat
Skippering on the Sly
Charlie Manuel has the mannerisms and voice of a man born in Northfork, West Virginia. The Phillies manager has a folksy charm and not one bit of pretentiousness. He speaks slowly and with a thick drawl. Perhaps because of all that, it often seems as it Manuel is not taken seriously as a major league manager.
"People talk about the best managers in the game, and Charlie's name never seems to come up," Phillies reliever Chad Durbin said. "I really think a lot of that comes because of the way Charlie is. He's just a regular guy who doesn't act like he's anybody special or think he's more important than he is. However, once you're around him every day, you understand he is a really good manager. He doesn't miss anything, either on the field or in the clubhouse. He sees everything, even the slightest eye movements of guys sometimes. He's a really sharp guy, regardless of what the public's perception might be."
Here is a fact about Manuel that is rather astounding: His teams have finished in either first or second place in their divisions in each of his six full seasons as a manager. The Indians were second in the American League Central in 2000, and won the division in 2001. The only season in which Manuel has ever had a losing record was in 2002, when the Indians were 39-47 in the first year of rebuilding after winning six AL Central titles in the span of seven years. Manuel, wanting some level of job security during the overhaul of the organization, asked for a contract extension, and was denied. So, Manuel suggested that first-year general manager Mark Shapiro should fire him, and he did. Since becoming the manager of the Phillies, they have finished second in the National League East in both 2005 and 2006, and in both '07 and '08 they finished with strong September kicks to win the division. Manuel now has the Phillies on the brink of their first appearance in the National League Championship Series since 1993. The Phillies hold a 2-0 lead over the Brewers in the NLDS, and can finish a sweep of the series tonight when Jamie Moyer faces Dave Bush in Game Three at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Despite this run of success, Manuel had never placed higher than fifth in the Baseball Writers Association of America's Manager of the Year voting until last season, when he finished second to the Diamondbacks' Bob Melvin. "I think Charlie really gets overlooked for a lot of the success this organization has had in recent years," Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino said. "It's a tough city to manage in. The fans are demanding, and so is the media. It seems like Charlie never gets a fair shake and people are always looking to criticize him. We've won the division title the last two years with him as our manager, though. That has to tell you something. He makes a lot of right moves."
One of those moves came in the Phillies' 5-2 win over the Brewers in Game Two on Thursday night. Manuel decided to flip-flop Victorino and right fielder Jayson Werth in the batting order against Brewers ace CC Sabathia, moving Victorino up to the second slot and dropping Werth to sixth. While the merits of the importance of batting-order position has been argued often in the world of statistical analysis, this much is true: Victorino stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning and delivered a grand slam that put the Phillies ahead 5-1. The four runs that Victorino produced with one swing equaled the most Sabathia had given up in any of his 17 regular-season starts with the Brewers since acquiring him from the Indians in a trade for a package of four prospects on July 7. "Jayson had been pressing too much, trying too hard," Manuel said. "I just had a feeling Shane was the better guy to bat in the number-two hole with the way CC has been pitching. You get feelings as a manager sometimes. Your instincts tell you to do something and you just do it."
That is the best way to describe Manuel's style of managing. Not that he doesn't believe in the value of analysis or is ignorant of numbers, but he believes that the human element also plays a part in success. "I follow baseball every single day of the year," Manuel said. "I read the box scores for every game in the National League and American League. I know what teams are hot, what players are hot, and who is struggling, too. That's important. I'm also a believer in team chemistry. I'll take talent every time ahead of anything else, but if you can take that talent and put together a team that can get along and play together, then you're chances of success are a lot better. I like teams that smile, teams that have a good time, teams where the players like each other."
Manuel fosters team chemistry with his consistent personality. He has been the perfect man for the Phillies following the four-year managerial run of Larry Bowa, who was a beloved figure in Philadelphia from his playing days, but as a skipper he eventually turned off his players with his non-stop intensity.
"The thing that stands out the most about Charlie is his consistency," said left fielder Pat Burrell, who has the longest tenure with the Phillies, having made his major league debut with them on May 24, 2000 when Terry Francona was still the manager. "It's not that he doesn't get angry or upset at times, and [he] lets you hear about it when things need to be said. He's not a pushover by any means, but he's also a pretty steady guy with an upbeat presence who keeps things positive. He keeps the atmosphere good around here."
There is also one other interesting thing to know about Manuel. Following graduation from Northfork High School in 1962, he had the option to accept a football scholarship to Michigan, a basketball scholarship to North Carolina, or sign a professional baseball contract with the Twins. Counted on to support his family after his father, a minister, had committed suicide in the summer before his senior year, Manuel chose baseball.
Manuel also had one other rather intriguing opportunity. He was offered an academic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, meaning that Manuel could have been an Ivy Leaguer in the same city where he is now having so much success as a major league manager without getting much credit for it. "Charlie is a very smart guy," Durbin said. "I know sometimes people have the perception that he isn't, but I also think he's smart enough to use that to his advantage. No manager is going to out-think Charlie."