It was about a decade ago, hanging around the Cleveland Indians dugout a couple hours before a game, when I asked Charlie Manuel if he had any memories of managing the Toledo Mud Hens in 1986.
He chuckled some about woeful Ned Skeldon Stadium, and then summed it all up thusly: "I'd a 'joyed it more if the players was good."
Someday, Charlie and Yogi Berra will be Upstairs and will run into Casey Stengel, another one-time Mud Hens manager, and they'll sit down around a hot stove and the conversation will have heads spinning. None of them majored in English.
But it's one thing to be a goober and it's another to be stupid.
After Manuel was hired to manage the Phillies in 2005 a headline in a Philadelphia newspaper referred to him as "Charlie of Mayberry." He was a bumpkin from the backwoods in Virginia and he has that slow drawl and lumbers more than walks, and dangles the occasional participle. The other finalist for the job, the people's choice, had been Jim Leyland and, good gracious, what could the Phillies have been thinking?
Maybe they were listening to Jim Thome, their first baseman at the time. He had played for Manuel in the minor leagues and in Cleveland, credited him with the batting tip that created one of the game's most feared power hitters, and made it clear that, appearances aside, Charlie was nobody's fool.
Meanwhile, after being fired by the Indians, for which he is still a tad bitter, Manuel had spent a couple years as a consultant to the Phillies' general manager, who presumably listened to what he had to say and not to how he said it.
On Monday, the Phils clinched their fourth straight National League East title and, with the NL's best record and home-field advantage in the playoffs, will be shooting for a third straight berth in the World Series. They have never failed to win at least 85 games in six seasons under Manuel, who is 541-426 in Philadelphia and 761-616 overall including his two-plus seasons in Cleveland and not including a 22-15 postseason record.
The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and lost to the Yankees a year ago. After the '08 victory against Tampa Bay, Manuel laughed and said, "It couldn't happen to a better feller." After losing to the Yankees, he attempted a General MacArthur-like "I shall return" speech, except he messed the quote up. But, perhaps, he shall.
Speaking of quotes, one of the all-timers was when Manuel was talking about being one of 11 kids and deadpanned, "Heck, I never slept alone until I got married."
He may be from Mayberry - Buena Vista, Va., actually, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains - but he is no longer Philadelphia's bumpkin. Manuel is on the cusp of being beloved in a town known for its tough fans and, these days, is merely accused of being folksy.
It has taken a lot of thick skin for Manuel to arrive at the top of his profession. He is a calm hand, a confidence builder, a quiet motivator, a laid-back father figure in the clubhouse. His teams are talented, sure, but they play best in September and October, when pressure can take a choke hold on even the best players and teams.
"When someone asks me what I want to be known as," Manuel once said, "I want to be known as a winner. That kinda tells the whole story."
More than kinda.
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