The baseball faith of Charlie Manuel
Part of a vanishing breed, the Phillies' manager still believes in his every-day players
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is more than the colorful second coming of Casey Stengel -- though granted, if murdering the English language were a prosecutable offense, both Manuel and Stengel would be serial killers banished to the same cell block at Leavenworth. Manuel is also a shrewd observer of the human condition. You laugh, I know. But Charlie knows what people say about him.
"People holler about me," Manuel says.
God has never created a manager that wasn't second-guessed or, worse, routinely nominated to be the village idiot. But the beauty of Charlie Manuel is that once you get beyond his folksy manner and shambling walk, the fractured grammar and backcountry Virginia drawl, his funny storytelling and baggy uniform and close-cropped white hair that often looks as if he's combed it with an eggbeater at the end of a tough game, what you find is the real deal, the genuine article.
Manuel, 66, is more than a remorseless hunch player. He's a vanishing breed among big league mangers -- an unreconstructed, dyed-in-the-wool, old-time baseball man who has always viewed the game as a Shangri-la he never wants to leave, not even after a journeyman playing career that featured 1,000 minor league games but only 244 career big league at-bats before he headed off to play in Japan for six seasons.
Listening to Manuel's paean to the Every-day Ballplayer in one of his press conferences the other day was to be left with the impression that he believes there may be no higher calling in sports.
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"Every-day ballplayers are special people," he began, trying in his roundabout way to explain why he's loath to bench someone who has proved himself.
Which brings us to the other thing to love about Charlie Manuel as a manager: He doesn't worry about covering his own butt.
Manuel's faith in his players -- not just the B-listers or players who are struggling, but especially those guys -- became an issue again Wednesday night after the San Francisco Giants shoved the Phillies into a tough corner, one loss away from elimination in the National League Championship Series, with a dramatic Game 4 win.
When Giants pinch-hitter Juan Uribe lofted a game-winning sacrifice fly to left in the bottom of the ninth against surprise Phillies reliever Roy Oswalt ("Wait!" someone might reasonably yelp here. "What was Manuel's inviolate Game 6 starter, Oswalt, doing in Game 4?"), it was easy to imagine the talk-radio switchboards already lighting up and callers spitting out the same insults they've always thrown at Manuel.
Charlie's dumb! Charlie blew it Wednesday night by starting Joe Blanton instead of bringing back Roy Halladay on short rest! This time ol' country Charlie has just gone too far! What's the point of having a star-studded starting rotation if you don't push the advantage and start them on three days' rest?
The Phillies are teeter-tottering in a sort of high-stakes limbo right now as they try to stay alive for their third trip to the World Series and second championship in three years. Everything about them still hangs in the balance. Are the Phillies a bona fide dynasty still in ascent built around superstars Halladay, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins? Or will the Giants' self-proclaimed mutts and castoffs grab this NLCS as soon as Game 5 on Thursday night and render the 2010 Phillies just another sad bookmark in their city's tortured sports history, saddling them with a downbeat epitaph that could read something like this: "Talent-loaded team roared back to overtake Atlanta for the division title late in the season, but ultimately underachieved despite a murderer's row of starting pitching and a hitting lineup that never hit enough in the playoffs"?
The reflex is to blame everything on Manuel. Manuel's bedrock faith in his players drives his critics nuts.
He started Blanton on Wednesday night rather than asking Halladay -- who opened the playoffs with only the second no-hitter in postseason history -- and then Oswalt and Cole Hamels to all pitch on short rest. He didn't send up a pinch hitter for Ben Francisco in a big spot Wednesday, either. He's stuck with Rollins, his struggling, nicked-up shortstop, just as devotedly as he handcuffed the entire team's chances last year to his belief that closer Brad Lidge would right himself in the playoffs, despite Lidge's nightmarish regular season.
And look: Lidge did well enough last year to help the Phillies fall one game short of defending their World Series title against the Yankees. This postseason, Rollins stroked a big RBI double in Game 2, the Phillies' only win so far in the NLCS.
Where critics go wrong is expecting Manuel to be 100 percent right all the time. Because no manager is.
Manuel's faith is precisely what makes him far and away the most interesting manager in the playoffs.
And believe it or not, good ol' Charlie just might've said the most profound thing anyone has said yet this postseason, too.
It happened Monday, as Manuel was giving a typically rambling answer about his philosophy on baseball and managing people.
Everyone has been riddling Manuel with questions for weeks about how and why he's stuck by Rollins. And Manuel's retort -- which should be his shining moment, no matter how this NLCS turns out -- was to finally look back at all his inquisitors and essentially say: All of you people who are talking to me about Rollins' struggles -- don't you get it? You really don't get it?
Struggling is what baseball is all about.
"That is the game," Manuel said.
He could have added this: "You try catching up with a 97 mph fastball or painting the corners with all your pitches day after day. It isn't easy. Neither is keeping a keen competitive edge from February to November, or ignoring injury and uncertainty, exhaustion and failure, and then trying not to make too much of head-turning success because you know it never lasts forever."
That's where Manuel's reverence for the every-day player comes from. Never giving into the struggle is an every-day ballplayer's lot. And a manager's burden.
When you come at baseball from a vantage point like that -- believing that success is not an inevitability just because a guy's name is Halladay or Rollins or Utley, the same way failure is not assured if you roll the dice and allow a lesser light like Ben Francisco or Chad Durbin a shot -- then understanding the source of Charlie Manuel's magnificent faith (or daring) is not difficult at all.
Nor is it difficult to understand why Manuel's players rave about his ability to make a team really feel like a team.
Everyone gets to feel he has something to contribute.
The operation Manuel runs has never been about him, even if he did make everyone laugh, as usual, the other day while telling a story about how he'd always get genuinely mad and then shoo away his managers back when he was still a hitting coach, telling them, "If I'm going to get fired, at least lemme fire myself."
Manuel's sentiment then wasn't all that different from the message he gave Rollins both publicly and privately as Rollins scuffled this postseason: "I'll stay with you, son. I'll go down with you too."
The Phillies might, indeed, be going down. But Manuel's inviolable faith, despite all the hollering, is why so many baseball people find him a hard guy not to love.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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