WHENEVER anyone asks me to tell a Charlie Manuel story, this is the story I will tell:
It was October 2008. The Phillies had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Division Series. The Champagne spraying had ceased, for the most part. Manuel was hiding out in the visiting manager's office at Miller Park. I poked my head in.
"Close the door," he said.
We talked for about 10 minutes, give or take. The standard black phone sat on the standard metal desk and rang almost constantly, but Manuel ignored it. His own cellphone, one of those old clamshells, also was blowing up, vibrating and dancing across the desktop. Manuel watched it, amused.
"That's my mother," he said, finally, after picking it up.
"Want me to leave?"
"No, I'll call her back in a minute," Manuel said. Neither of us knew that she would be dead within a week, or that the Phillies would win the World Series soon after, or that Manuel would last almost nine seasons on the job, until yesterday.
I remember writing about the quiet vindication Manuel felt that day. When he was hired, and through the first year or so, a lot of people dismissed him as a rube. Only later did most people see how hard his team played, and how well. But there was something Manuel still wanted, desperately.
"You know?" he said. "Know what I'd like people to call me? A winner, that's what."
It's funny, the things you think of on a day they fire somebody. None of this is Charlie Manuel's fault, of course. Everybody who has watched the Phillies' accelerating downward spiral over the last couple of seasons knows that. It does not need to be said, because it is that obvious, but days like this are as much for making a complete record as they are for the obvious reckoning.
A lousy baseball team - a lousy baseball team whose construction Manuel has had very little to do with - has rolled over, and Manuel's only fault is that he happened to be the one sitting in the office when the roof collapsed.
I feel bad for the guy, because Manuel is a good man who was good at what he did. For all of those who spent their lives nitpicking his strategic moves, this will be a happy time. But for anyone who has ever spent any time around a professional sports franchise, and who understands - especially in baseball - how much the human side of it, the people-management side of it, really means, this is a much harder day.
Because Manuel was a good manager of people. And he was a great student of the game. Anybody who sat and talked with him always tended to learn something. One of his pet sayings - "watch the game" - told you everything you needed to know. Manuel watched the games. Very little got by him. He understood hitters, and he understood struggling, young players, and he understood the way you treat a veteran trying to gimp his way through an injury.
Manuel knew, more than anything, how hard the game is, and how humbling it is. Maybe it's because it humbled him as a player, but he understood how hard it was to be worthy of everyday status as a major league player. He would celebrate that as a great accomplishment, something that cannot just be handed out like a raffle ticket.
It is not hard to go on and on about how right he was about stuff. He could routinely tell you 2 or 3 days before a guy was going to break out of a slump - simply based upon what he was seeing in the batting cage before a game.
He was good and he was smart and he was classy - that last news conference was a window into what the man is about. And that 2008 World Series ring, well, Manuel also said this that day in Milwaukee:
"Winner," he said. "You know? Winner. If you get a World Series ring, you're automatically a winner. That's the symbol of what you achieved, that you're a winner. I think of someone like [then-Dodgers manager] Joe Torre, and how he's won so many times, and that's how people look at him - he's a winner."
And that reminds me of my second-favorite Charlie Manuel story. It was the next year, the next October. The Phillies were in the playoffs again, playing the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. It was an off-day in the series, and I was writing a column about how the managers had such disparate paths to the same spot. Torre was a great player and a golden child, who started his managerial career as the player-manager of the Mets, failed in several places and still got another shot with the Yankees. Manuel scuffled in the majors, played in Japan, managed in the minor leagues, rode buses Torre had never seen as a grown man, at least not on the inside.
So I Iooked it up and, as it turned out, Manuel and Torre played one major league game together, in May 1975, when Manuel was with the Dodgers and Torre was with the Mets. Armed with that knowledge, courtesy of retrosheet.org, I sought out Manuel for a second, to ask him whether he could possibly remember the day.
He was in the dugout, surrounded by various lieutenants and other Phillies personnel. He did not have much time or interest in talking - I really was intruding. But I got the question out quickly, and he was intrigued. Leaning on the dugout railing, watching the Dodgers take batting practice - just a timeless baseball pose, the classic Manuel - he thought for a few seconds and then he got this look in his eye, and he looked at me and he smiled and said two words:
I started laughing. He told the story of coming up as a pinch-hitter against Tom Seaver. He said: "In the dugout, Walter Alston calls me over and says, 'This guy's perfect for you.' So what happens? He throws me two changeups - one of 'em is about this far outside, but the umpire is telling me to get in there and hit, so what the hell? Then he throws me a big, slow curve. Hit it to second base - right?"
On Twitter: @theidlerich