Playoff-bound Manuel gets the last laugh

Champagne-soaked manager Charlie Manuel waves to fans after the Phillies clinched National League East.

Usually, when Charlie Manuel struggles up the steps of the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park, boos and catcalls greet him. His heritage is derided; his accent, mocked; his baseball acumen, slurred.

Yesterday evening, when Manuel lurched up the steps, he received a moving and raucous cheer from the 8,000 faithful who remained to celebrate the Phillies' first playoff berth since 1993.

"It was outstanding. Outstanding," said Manuel later as he changed his shirt in his private bathroom.

So, after 3 years of constant criticism: Any hard feelings, Chuck?

"Not at all. Sometimes, you've got to show."

Manuel has shown, with the Phillies' 89 wins and National League East title, thanks to a 13-4 surge that overtook the Mets.

Manuel spent the season in the last year of his contract, leading a staff of lame-duck coaches. Now, it will be Manuel's choice whether he comes back, and which coaches he brings.

"We've let Charlie know that already," team president David Montgomery said yesterday.

That will delight his players, who have been appreciative of his calm and supportive manner as they slogged through a swamp of injuries and poor early play.

"I can't express it, really," Chase Utley said. "Charlie gets a bad rap. He's the reason we stuck together, and that's big."

"I can't even put it into words," Aaron Rowand agreed. "He has been the steadying force on this team for the last 2 years. He believes in his players. You know where you stand with him."

Manuel's refusal to conduct abusive meetings in which he berates his players had drawn criticism in his first 2 seasons. This year, he said he resisted the urge to do so several times - he was known as the "Red Devil" in his playing days because of his temper - and it worked.

"I think I manage a lot more than [critics] give me credit for," Manuel said. "They act like they don't want to see it. I take care of things people never hear about."

For example, when Manuel saw a headline yesterday that indicated Adam Eaton criticized Manuel's quick hook of Eaton on Saturday, Manuel called Eaton into his office and hollered:

"What the bleep is this bleep, bleep it!"

Eaton pointed out that the headline didn't exactly match his quotes. Eaton also expressed his appreciation for Manuel's patience with him as he struggled with physical, mechanical and personal problems in an awful season for him personally.

Placated, Manuel and Eaton smoothed things over.

Such episodes are common - but making public Manuel's reprimand of a player here or there would not change his image.

"Winning is the key," Manuel said. "People love winners. And Philadelphia is starved for a winner."

Today, they're eating up Charlie Manuel. *