CLEARWATER, Fla. - Dallas Green's shadow isn't all that long. Not at 10:25 in the morning, with the sun climbing the Florida sky. The only Phillies manager ever to win a World Series is strolling across the grass at the Carpenter Complex, his shadow moving toward the one cast by Charlie Manuel.

The two men, who famously quarreled with each other last summer, exchange small talk about last night's restaurant meal. Then Green moves off in one direction, and Manuel, fungo bat in hand, strolls off to watch the first drills of another perfect Clearwater morning.

There's something compelling about this momentary intersection of past and present. Green earned a lifetime free pass in 1980; he can say whatever he wants about whomever he wants and people will care about his opinion. But it's also important to remember that the '80 team included Hall of Fame-caliber players such as Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Pete Rose - a rare collection of talent.

The team Manuel watches and coaches and nudges is the most talented Phillies team since that era. It includes the current National League MVP, a handful of all-stars and a blend of proven and potentially dominating starting pitchers. And that makes Manuel the next Phillies manager with a chance to win a World Series.

In professional sports, high expectations come with equally high pressure. That's why, whenever you see a story about major-league managers who enter 2007 on the proverbial "hot seat," Manuel is in there. The team's potential, its recent disappointments and the hiring of Jimy Williams as bench coach conspire to turn up the burner under Manuel's chair.

The irony is that the person most responsible for the temperature under Manuel is Manuel himself - because of success, not failure.

Talent is available

Who are the players who make the Phillies serious contenders? Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels would top the list. And how many of those players have blossomed in the last two seasons under Manuel? The answer is all five, but especially Howard and Utley.

This is the thing Manuel's biggest critics simply fail to comprehend or acknowledge. For years, many of the Phillies' top prospects disappointed here and then either faded away or bloomed elsewhere. On Manuel's watch, Howard won rookie of the year and MVP within the first 15 months of his big-league career. Utley emerged as the best second baseman in the National League, making the first of what will likely be many All-Star Game starts last summer.

Would they be as good if someone else had been the manager? Maybe. We'll never know. What we do know is that they have blown up into stars playing for Manuel.

"I look at their performance and the numbers they've put up, and they're definitely ahead of where I thought they would be," Manuel said. "I get a lot out of that. You talk about getting the most out of your players, and I think that's the big thing. If you have 25 guys and you're getting the most out of all of them, you stand a very good chance of winning something."

Criticizing technique

Manuel was criticized for the way he brought Howard and Utley along, holding the big first baseman out against lefthanders and platooning Utley with Placido Polanco at second for a while. But it's backward thinking to conclude they developed in spite of that. Manuel did what felt right to him, and both players made remarkably quick progress.

If the biggest knock on Manuel is that his in-game decisions cost the Phillies a few wins - and that is true, really, of every manager in the sport - then how do you weigh the games won because Howard and Utley and Rollins are relaxed and confident and producing in the clutch?

"Confidence is so much a part of it," Manuel said. "When you see somebody have success like these guys have had, it definitely helps them."

The week before the Super Bowl, Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said something that sounded kind of odd at the time. He wanted to win, he said, but winning was not the most important thing to him as a coach. The most important thing was to help each player reach his full potential.

If there's a place for fairness in the conversation, then Manuel would be getting a lot of credit for the excitement around this team. Instead, there is more talk about whether he will survive a bad start.

Truth is, he probably wouldn't. That's how baseball works, and Manuel understands that as well as anyone.

But then there's the chance it all comes together, that the team blossoms this year the way individual players did last year. In that case, there won't be any shadow long enough to keep Manuel from claiming his share of the credit.

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