By Steve Sherman
Now that the Phillies are playoff-bound for a fourth year in a row, manager Charlie Manuel might begin to let his hair down.
A few weeks ago when the question was still in doubt, Manuel was asked by a reporter when he might relax and his answer was “I’ll relax when we’re four games ahead with three to go.”
Well now that the Phillies are in first place in the National League East by six games with six to go, Manuel might be convinced to settle down a little, especially if the Phils win tonight with Roy Halliday on the hill.
Back in mid-April when the season was just getting started, Bucks County residents got a chance to see the lighter side of the Phillies manager, thanks to an appearance he made at a Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce (LBCCC) reception that took place at Spring Mill Manor in Ivyland.
Manuel delighted all who came to the LBCCC-sponsored affair with jokes about his personal life, and quips from his playing days in Japan, where his career took off. Playing for the Yakult Swallows (1976–1978, '81) and the Kintetsu Buffaloes (1979–1980), Manuel routinely hit over .300, more than 40 home runs and over 90 RBI a season.
After a rather lengthy introduction by Phillies beat writer Randy Miller, Manuel began his speech with this quip:
“We had 11 kids in our family. My dad was a minister and my mom had a pretty tough life but at the same time actually, I never slept alone until I got married.”
Charlie went on to say how tough it was on him growing up and finding proper hand-me-down attire to wear to school.
“With big families, you have hand me down clothes and I remember I had a big problem -- the three kids ahead of me were girls.
“I was 12-years-old before the boys quit carrying my books home from school.”
Ever the humble pie, Manuel recalled a Japanese baseball fan who declined to ask for his autograph after the fan’s companion told him Manuel “used to be good.”
The truth is Manuel was considered one of the best foreign players in Japan in those days. He finished his career there with a .303 career average, 189 home runs and 491 RBI.
Playing for the Buffaloes in ‘79, Manuel hit 24 homeruns in the first eight weeks and was on a pace to break the league record of 16 homers hit in a month. He went on to hit 37 safeties and drive in 94 runs that year, helping Kintetsu win its first ever pennant race and earning MVP honors.
Manuel seems just as successful as the Phillies manager but it wasn’t always that way. Hired to replace former skipper Larry Bowa in 2004, Charlie took his lumps in Philadelphia, especially when the team failed to make the postseason his first three years at the helm.
When the club wasn’t winning, some of the critics got personal with the now 66-year-old manager and his West Virginia colloquialisms. But Manuel took it in stride, he says.
“People said things that kind of ridiculed me -- that I was dumb or stupid. If that came from someone inside the ball club, it would have bothered me but the media and the fans, that didn’t bother me.
“You gotta have thick skin and you gotta be mentally tough. Life is mentally tough; everything about it is mentally tough.”
Manuel insists he was treated no differently than previous managing stints in Cleveland and Minnesota.
When I first came here, I said “If we win, they’ll forget about everything.”
“Since we’ve been here, things have worked out pretty good,” again making light of the moment.
When he’s being serious, Manuel talks about how much that world championship meant to him in 2008.
“The World Series brought out something that I had never seen before.
“When it was all over and we won, I looked up in the stands and I saw all the fans and all the people and how happy they were.
“Some of them were crying and some of them were touching you and telling you how much they love you.
“Everything about it was real and genuine and that to me, that’s what it’s all about it.”
Last April at Spring Mill, Manuel finished his speech by recalling a moment on board one of the floats that carried the Phillies down Broad Street in 2008 after the team won the Series.
The coach spotted a youthful fan that he knew who routinely came to Citizens Bank Park to see the Phillies play ball.
“I said, ‘hey David what do you think?’”
“The boy turned around and said to his dad, ‘hey dad, don’t you think it’s great that I know Charlie Manuel. His dad said, ‘no, I think it’s great that Charlie Manuel knows you.’”
A story like that one told by the coach is why Manuel may yet go down in Phillies folklore as the greatest manager in franchise history (he could have over 600 coaching wins by the time this season is over), why fans line up on both sides of the Delaware River to see the man who reversed a 25-year-old championship drought in the City of Brotherly Love.