WASHINGTON - Give the weary Philadelphia baseball press corps credit. It managed to cover a baseball game here yesterday without a single radio talk-show host on hand to demonstrate how to ask the tough questions.

Charlie Manuel managed, too. Just as he always does, which is kind of the point.

"I've been on teams where things go bad and there's panic," said Jamie Moyer, who has played for a bunch of managers, including the vaunted Lou Piniella for more than six seasons. "You try this and it doesn't work. So you try that and it doesn't work. People know who you are. You have to stay in character as a person."

In what has to rate as one of the more bizarre weeks in a long baseball career, Manuel was very much himself after a rare 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.

"Yeah, I lost some hair," Manuel said, in reply to a not-so-tough question about how the wild ninth inning affected him. "The last three years, Philly's definitely taken that away from me."

This particular manager presents an interesting set of problems for anyone trying to get a handle on his team. The one thing he has in common with his predecessor, Larry Bowa, is that the public perception about him is comically wrong - and a lot of conclusions are jumped to from that wrong foundation.

Bowa was not the intense motivator who demanded excellence from his players that many fans seem to believe he was. Manuel is not the aw-shucks back-slapper who doesn't hold his players accountable.

At this point, it is almost impossible for Manuel to rewrite that public image. That's no doubt a major reason he went off the other night on WIP's Howard Eskin. The manager believes, with reason, that the local sports-talk station has done much to create his current image. Ironically, Eskin bore the full brunt of Manuel's anger because he's the only regular host on the station who actually ventures into the clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.

It is more than fair to criticize Manuel as a manager. Given the Phillies' awful start, compounded by the preceding years of frustration, it is fair to criticize everyone connected with the franchise. Barring a remarkable and sudden turnaround, Manuel could be gone before the all-star break.

He knows that. Everyone knows that.

But if Manuel is fired, it should be for the right reasons, not the reasons harped on so often in the public dialogue about him. Here's a theory about a lot of the misplaced criticism: Many people have no idea what a good baseball manager really is.

Here's what he isn't: A good baseball manager is not there to serve as the fans' proxy, spanking those overpaid, spoiled players because they aren't producing enough. A good baseball manager fosters a winning atmosphere, puts the right players in position to succeed, keeps a finger on his team's pulse, and acts accordingly.

It is more art than science. Manuel's record over two-plus seasons has been mixed - about as mixed as the quality of his pitching staff.

Manuel has answered the "tough" questions about his demeanor a number of times. He actually has to work at controlling his temper, because he found it counterproductive when he lost it as a younger coach and manager. So he watches his team and tries to pick his spots now.

"I listen to our players," Manuel said. "Before the game, they go around and talk about winning every day. I really feel like they've been overtrying."

Last year, Manuel threw a tantrum in early May that shook the team out of a funk. In July, all too aware of the subpar pitching, he took the calm-and-steady approach. It paid off when the Phillies surged in the second half.

See, there's a difference between making the judgment that his team needs a calming influence right now and being clueless. And it's in that difference that the discussion about Manuel goes off the rails.

"We all spend a lot of time together," said Moyer, who chose to re-sign and play for Manuel this season. "If you don't stay in character, and you're not the same person, you're really hard to deal with. If you're like Jekyll and Hyde, and one day you're great and one day you're not, that's the roller coaster. I think Charlie does a great job of bringing a settling feeling."

If you understand what the day-to-day life of a baseball team is like, that makes sense to you. If you want the manager to yell and scream the way you sometimes want to do while watching a player strike out or give up a home run, Moyer sounds like a coddled player.

Moyer may be the least coddled player in major-league baseball. That's what makes him the right guy to ask - smart questions, not tough ones.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.