SHORTLY AFTER the 1975 World Series ended, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who did not participate after losing to the Oakland A's the previous October, made a couple roster moves that couldn't have been more different.
In a headline-grabbing trade with the Atlanta Braves, they acquired outfielder Johnnie B. (Dusty) Baker, a bold move that added what general manager Al Campanis expected to be the big bat they needed in the middle of their lineup.
In a separate transaction that went largely unnoticed, they released 30-year-old outfielder Charles Fuqua Manuel, even though he had batted .329 with 30 homers and 102 RBI for the Triple A Albuquerque Dukes in 1974 and followed it up with .325-16-64 in just 81 games for the Dukes that year. In a couple cameo call-ups in that span, Manuel never took the field. Used exclusively as a pinch-hitter he had three singles in 18 at bats.
Baker - young, hip and black - had some of his best seasons in Los Angeles and went on to have a distinguished 19-year, big-league career.
Manuel - older, Southern and white - needed to go halfway around the world to find real success on the field, hitting 189 homers in 6 years for Japan's Yakult Swallows and Kintetsu Buffaloes.
Their two very different roads have intersected once again. The National League Division Series featuring Manuel's favored Phillies and Baker's underdog Reds begins tonight at The Bank. And now, 35 years later, their similarities are more pronounced than their differences.
Both have had successful managerial careers. Baker had three postseason appearances with the Giants, including going to the World Series, went to the NLCS with the Cubs and has overseen steady improvement since coming to Cincinnati. Manuel took the 2001 Indians to the playoffs and has made the postseason 4 years in a row with the Phillies. In the National League, only Hall of Famer John McGraw and future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox have done that.
Both are considered player's managers. And both have to be considered front-runners to be voted the NL Manager of the Year.
Baker has won it three times: 1993, 1997 and 2000. Manuel has never won the award.
It's hard to predict how the ballots will fall this time around. The trend is to reward managers who exceeded expectations, which would certainly give an edge to Baker as well as San Diego's Bud Black and San Francisco's Bruce Bochy.
The Cardinals, with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday anchoring the batting order and Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia at the top of the rotation, were prohibitive favorites to win the NL Central. The Reds, coming off a 78-84 season, weren't expected to be able to compete.
The Phillies, coming off back-to-back World Series appearances, added Roy Halladay. Anything less than a threepeat would be considered a massive letdown. Who couldn't win with all that talent?
That thinking doesn't hold up under closer inspection, though. The Phillies faced a series of challenges this season, including trailing by as many as seven games in late July. And if this year wasn't his most adroit, 2009 may have been when Jimmy Rollins fought through a deep slump for most of the first half, Brad Lidge went from perfect to extremely imperfect and Cole Hamels, the staff ace at the start of the season, suffered through a seasonlong hangover after pitching 262 1/3 innings during his 2008 magic carpet ride.
It's also easy to ignore the fact that keeping a group of highly talented individuals on the same page for 6 months, and keeping them motivated after they've had some success requires skill, too.
Both Manuel and Baker, of course, are focused on the NLDS instead of personal honors right now. And both have mellowed over the years. That may have come from the hard-earned perspective that comes with surviving serious health scares. Baker had prostate-cancer surgery in 2001. Manuel had quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1998 and kidney-cancer surgery in 2000.
As a player in Japan, Manuel was nicknamed Red Devil. Robert Whiting, who authored two excellent books on Japanese baseball, referred to him as "a big, red-haired character from West Virginia . . . with a talent for producing anarchy out of order."
Now he's perceived as avuncular Big Chuck, although he can still get carried away. Talking about his approach to team meetings, he admitted yesterday that he's usually tried to be "kind of diplomatic" at the start. "But that doesn't work because that's not who I am, and I end up screaming and hollering," he said with a laugh.
Baker admitted that when he was first hired by the Giants he thought he was invincible.
"I remember when I first took the job, [general manager] Al Rosen told me that managers are made to be hired and fired. I didn't think that applied to me, of course," he said with a self-deprecating smile. "It happened, and then you pick yourself up and keep going."
Now the two baseball men will meet again. One will win. One will lose.
And it would be disappointing if one isn't voted the National League's 2010 Manager of the Year.
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