Commentary

What keeps Manuel calm? His roots

Mets manager remains grounded through thoughts of his humble past

Updated: June 14, 2010, 3:59 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Jerry Manuel PictureJohnette Howard for ESPN.comThe picture of the Cecil, Ga. home in which Jerry Manuel grew up hangs on his office wall.

The photograph is large and mounted in a black wood frame and it hangs in a conspicuous spot in Mets manager Jerry Manuel's office at Citi Field, just to the right of the doorway as you walk in. The image is a color shot of a ramshackle one-story cabin fronted by a narrow, elevated sitting porch and cement-block stairs that zigzag up a little from a scruffy patch of grass to meet the porch. The wood siding is worn and uneven; some of it's painted, some not. The house's roof line sags a little.

The fact the photo is here at all amidst the baseball memorabilia in Manuel's office suggests there must be a good story behind it, right?

"A good story, yes," Manuel says, then smiles and nods, sipping from a cup of coffee a couple of hours before the Mets split their day-night doubleheader against the San Diego Padres on Thursday.

This is the house where Manuel grew up in rural Cecil, Ga., and he keeps this photograph near him because no matter how his Mets job is going -- whether the death watch is on again or not -- Cecil is the place Manuel returns to in his mind. Mets players like Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur, not knowing a word about Manuel's backstory, have remarked lately on the steady, almost curious serenity that Manuel maintains even in the worst of times.

That perspective -- that comes from Cecil?

"Absolutely," Manuel says.

"My father [Lorenzo] got the deed to the land for $250 and mule," Manuel explains. "Then he purchased the materials and built that house himself. There was one bedroom for seven of us children. There was a kitchen. It wasn't very big, but we'd all sit down and eat dinner together there every night. I lived in that house until I was 15. I was the youngest boy [among four], and I had two younger sisters after me.

"Looking at the place now, it may look like there were difficult times, they were also some of the best times in my life, too, you know?"

Life was a pendulum for Manuel even then. He agrees it wasn't bad practice for being a big league manager in a city like New York or for a team with a tortured recent history like the Mets.

Manuel's father was an Air Force man who scratched out odd jobs, even did a little barbering, to make ends meet for his big family. Lorenzo was also a pitcher for a barnstorming baseball team that used to travel around the South back when the Negro League was still around and the major league's color line was unbroken. Jerry says, "Mother told me I used to go to my father's games and mimic him by the foul line while people yelled, 'Hey! Get that boy off the field.' I remember my dad would come back from playing with stories about Cool Papa Bell and how fast he was. And Satchel Paige, of course. Jackie Robinson, too."

Now Manuel is in baseball in a way his father could only dream about. When you think of his job that way, what constitutes a bad day? Are any of them, really?

Job security has been an issue for Manuel from the moment he took over 2½ seasons ago after the Mets fired Willie Randolph in the dead of night.

Last season, injuries decimated the Mets. This year's club has been somewhat healthier but oddly schizophrenic. These Mets play great at home, but they started a nine-game trip this weekend lugging the worst road record in the National League. Don't ask them why. They can't explain it.

If the team is having a good week, Manuel hears he's going to be the Mets' manager the rest of the season. Let the Mets stumble to a few losses in a row, and the rumors start again that he could get fired at any time.

Some Mets players have wondered out loud how Manuel handles it. A few -- most recently, outfielders Bay and Francoeur -- have spoken up in Manuel's defense, saying things like: Don't people see the job he's done? Can't they see how the calmness and confidence and competitiveness he's conveyed all helps?

Bay says, "He's pretty much been on the hot seat since the season started. He works in a place where smaller things always seem to get turned into bigger things. And you know, I don't know how it is for him when he's alone. I'm sure it's no cakewalk. But around us here in the clubhouse, in the dugout, he's the most positive manager I've ever been around. Believe me, that goes a long way in this game and in a long season. You can't be that way unless you have character and principles."

"Well, it's appreciated," Manuel says. "[But] handling things seems to be a prerequisite for managing in New York."

But how do you deal with it, Manuel is pressed. How do you handle knowing every three-game losing streak can touch off still more calls for your head?

"I approach it like I'm here to manage this team for a 162-game season," Manuel says, firmly now.

For once the easygoing smile is gone.

The unspoken message is Manuel intends to make it to October and beyond, all right. What he doesn't add -- though he could -- is he might even have this team playing for a postseason spot by then.

The Mets began this weekend just 2.5 games back in the NL East. Neither Atlanta nor Philadelphia has run away with the division. And look: Will either of them add a better player before the trading deadline than the Mets would if Carlos Beltran comes back strong?

As it is, Manuel has held the Mets together even with Jose Reyes' thyroid troubles, with John Maine and Oliver Perez falling out of the starting rotation and Beltran being still weeks away from finishing his rehab from offseason knee surgery.

Still, you never get the feeling the Mets' performance has significantly lengthened the short leash that Manuel began this season on. No one is running around nominating him for manager of the year, even if once-brittle Mike Pelfrey has taken off on Manuel's watch, too, and Francoeur is slowly climbing out of the early season funk he was in. Angel Pagan, Beltran's replacement, is playing so well Mets fans are already worrying what will happen to Pagan when Beltran gets back. Manuel is somehow getting by with rookie first baseman Ike Davis penciled in as his cleanup hitter and R.A. Dickey, another surprise contributor, as his fourth-best starter.

Can it last? Who knows?

Philadelphia still has the best talent in the division. Manuel still makes in-game moves that leave you scratching your head. The negative cloud that's never far away from the Mets could always return. With them, every anxiety is exaggerated. Maybe too many collapses and spilt tears are in the books for it to ever be otherwise.

The Mets always seem to be on the precipice of being a team in trouble or a team that's kinda maybe sorta about to take off.

Either way, it's still a precipice.

For now, anyway, it's time Manuel got some praise for how he's navigated life on the high wire with the Mets.

If you ask Francoeur what's kept the Mets afloat thus far, this is what he says: "We're a team that plays hard. And the reason we play so hard is Jerry is a guy we want to play for."

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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