Not an overnight success, but Manuel won fans over
PHILADELPHIA -- It didn't begin well. Phillies fans had a bad attitude when their favorite baseball team hired Charlie Manuel to be the 51st manager in franchise history in November 2004. They thought he talked funny. They knew he wasn't Jim Leyland, who had also interviewed. He had replaced the immensely popular Larry Bowa.
One prominent local sports columnist pronounced that, of the seven candidates then-general manager Ed Wade brought into town, Manuel was the seventh-best option. He was predictably roasted on the sports-talk radio scene.
It's amazing what a difference 780 wins, five straight division titles, two pennants and one big, shiny trophy can make.
When the Phillies uncoupled Manuel on Friday, he departed as the winningest manager in club history, as well as a beloved figure in a notoriously difficult sports town. Fans took to Twitter to express how much they appreciated his tenure.
"I'm sad that Charlie Manuel is gone! I'm so thankful for what he brought to this city," read a typical message. Players (Michael Stutes and Kevin Frandsen ) and former players (Scott Eyre) chimed in.
But here's the most important thing to remember about the evolution of Manuel's image from country bumpkin to homespun baseball savant: People's opinion of him changed. He never did.
"I think when people call you stupid or ignorant, those are the things that get to you," he once said. "But I came to realize that I had to be bigger than that. It's part of being mentally tough and being a professional."
Manuel has an authentic generosity of spirit, which shouldn't be confused with weakness or a lack of will.
"I do have an ego," he said. "I've said that before. The most satisfying thing is that I kept telling people we could win. I thought it would change if I showed people how good we could play."
One of his favorite sayings: Know thyself.
In Spring Training 2008, before the Phillies won the World Series title, Manuel made it clear that he didn't feel the need to conform to the expectations of others.
"I know I've got a lot better personality than people see," he said at the time. "They see the southern-comfort guy and all that. Ol' Uncle Chuck. Which is OK. I've never had a problem with that. I'm very comfortable with who I am. I like being who I am."
When he was under consideration for the Phillies' managerial opening, he had a pamphlet printed up that touted his credentials. The headline was: "Charlie Manuel: Proven Winner." And that's a word that means everything to him.
"You see people in baseball, if they've got a ring on, that's a symbol that you're a winner," he said. "Once you win a World Series, you become a winner. In baseball, when people ask me what I want to be known as -- I say I want to be known as a winner. That kind of tells the whole story."
The change didn't happen overnight. In Manuel's first season, the Phillies had a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. They did their part by sweeping the Nationals on the final weekend of the season in 2005, but moments after the last out, the Astros won to clinch the National League Wild Card.
Pat Gillick replaced Wade after that. Manuel was in the last season of his contract, and the new general manager didn't decide until the end of the season -- and another near-miss at a Wild Card berth -- to bring him back. The decision was not widely applauded at the time.
It turned out to be exactly the right move. The Phillies got hot in September and passed the Mets to win the National League East in 2007. Even though Philadelphia was swept in the first playoff round, Manuel began winning over some of his harshest critics.
And that ushered in the greatest era of sustained success for a team that played its first game in 1883. The Phillies won the division again in 2008, rolled through the Brewers and Dodgers in the playoffs and then whipped the Rays in the World Series for just the second World Series championship in franchise history. Twice along the way, he benched reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, once for not running out a popup and once for arriving late to the clubhouse.
"You know what? Until you win something, a lot of times you're going to be criticized," he said. "When you're new or you're losing or you don't get off to a good start, yeah, there's going to be criticism."
Manuel heard it all. But one of his greatest strengths was that he rarely let it show, much like a hitter won't rub the spot when he's hit by a pitch, because he doesn't want to acknowledge that it hurts. For the most part, he didn't lash back. The same people skills that allowed him to orchestrate a room full of financially secure players into a team also allowed him to instinctively understand that those who took shots didn't really know him.
Eventually they would. Manuel is the sort of person who was visible at the grocery store or in a restaurant or just walking down the sidewalk. And he'd always be willing to stop and talk a little baseball.
"To know Charlie is to like him," club president David Montgomery pointed out.
Maybe the ending wasn't as graceful as some might have liked, but 19 losses in 23 games appeared to have forced the organization's hand.
Maybe the beginning wasn't as smooth as it could have been. What happened in between, though, was pretty doggone good. He won a lot of games. And changed the minds of a legion of doubters in the process.