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Phillies thrive on the quirky wisdom of Charlie Manuel

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 22, 2009

PHILADELPHIA

We don't have Casey Stengel anymore, who used double-talk to make perfect sense, but at least we've still got Charlie Manuel.

We may not have many old-school ballclubs anymore that love the game to death, show up six hours early, leave late, slide high, love pressure and know the difference between mere success and true excellence. But Charlie's Phillies do, 'cause he makes sure.

Before his world champion Phils clinched the National League pennant with four homers, two by Jayson Werth, in a 10-4 Game 5 rout of the Dodgers on Wednesday night, Manuel was asked if his team was high-maintenance or low-maintenance. He answered in Stengelese, that baseball language in which apparent imbecility actually masks unique personal wisdom, gained through half a century of experience in the game.

"We've got guys that like to pitch and we've got guys that like to play, and the guys that like to play, they stand out on the field. I don't have to tell you who they are because you'll see them."

Okay, laugh. But as reporters here now say to each other, "You have to really listen to Charlie."

Manuel knows what high-maintenance means, even if he pulls his West Virginia-raised act. His Phils are not only a low-maintenance team but also the incarnation of baseball from another era when the sport was more about honor and personal definition than money, more about mastering an incredibly difficult craft than making the 10-second TV highlights. Not that the Phils don't like money. But they aren't defined by it.

The guys who "like to play" -- which in Manuelese means that they have a passion for baseball, respect it, work hard and seldom choke under pressure -- are the ones Manuel puts in the lineup. The high-maintenance guys, he doesn't. So, you don't "see them out on the field." They don't deserve to be there. In fact, since Manuel arrived, they've been systematically weeded out.

Many have been amazed at the Phils' gift for clutch play in this postseason, including late heroics by Werth and Ryan Howard that were topped here Monday night when Jimmy Rollins, the 5-foot-8 shortstop who is the core of the clubhouse, turned around a 99-mph fastball from 290-pound Jonathan Broxton and became the fifth man in postseason history to turn a defeat into victory when he represented the last out of the game.

But Manuel isn't surprised at all by the Phillies' comeback knack and their ability to shake off blown saves all season by their dubious bullpen. He and others in the front office, like Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro, believe you can identify players who are at their best under pressure because they are both energized and focused by the spotlight, not paralyzed or distracted by it.

"There were individuals on our team [in Manuel's first two seasons], and I didn't call their names out in meetings, but we used to address the fact that we'd get tight and we would kind of panic and we couldn't play in the right moment," said Manuel.

"You've got to be totally relaxed, you've got to stay focused and it gets back to the [idea of] excellence over success," said Manuel. "If you strive to be the best, then success will be there."

Last October, when Charlie mentioned my essay on "Success and Excellence" in news conferences, and kept my book on his office desk, I let it alone. But he's back at it. Charlie boiled it down to: Don't get hung up on success and what people think of you; focus on excellence, play the game the right way, enjoy the moment and don't be scared of it. Nice edit: a 1,500-word trim.

The epitome of this player is Rollins. As he came to bat in the final inning Monday, Manuel caught the eye of the Dodgers' Jim Thome, one of his old pupils as a hitting instructor with the Indians years ago. "He's gonna get him," mouthed Manuel and pointed toward right-center, exactly where Rollins's double hit the wall. Thome won't comment now. Sore spot. But it's typical of the anti-modern way that Manuel enjoys the game as its in progress, rather than fret over it, teases opponents in real time and believes in decidedly non-Sabermetric factors like luck and intuition. What he lacks in syntax he makes up for in powers of observation.

"Jim [Thome] and Manny [Ramírez] and I spent years together in Cleveland," said Manuel. "I've never had a player who didn't want me to call pitches for them when I had the feeling. People think we're stealing signs. No, we're studying charts, tendencies. Then, in the game, you can feel it sometimes and put it together."

Manuel has such old familiar hand signals that, in the All-Star Game when he and Ramírez were no longer on the same team, Manny looked in the dugout twice, Manuel flashed the fastball sign once, curveball the next at bat and "Manny hit one rope to right center and another one down the right field line," said Manuel.

"Just like old times," said Ramírez.

Such depth of knowledge, such passion for the revealing detail, so many hours of charts and tapes -- such excellence in pursuit of the secrets of the game itself, even if no one else knows -- were on display again in this Game 5 in what may have been the key at-bat of the contest. With two on, two out, in the fifth with the Phils ahead 6-3, Manuel brought in Chad Durbin to face Ramírez.

Ramírez never took his eyes off Manuel. Read his lips on the mound? Read body language or a pitcher's reaction? Before the game, Manuel was acutely aware that Ramírez, one of his favorite people, was in hot water again -- this time for being in the clubhouse shower when Rollins got his walk-off hit Monday. A bad nonchalant teammate? The Philly media roasted him.

"Whatever Manny has to do be relaxed, he has to do it or he can't hit as well," said Manuel who knew Ramírez before he could even read or write and had breakfast with him nearly every day. So, if, to attain that calm, he must feign indifference or have Manny-Being-Manny outbreaks, so be it. Manuel loves it all. "When Manny doesn't run out a grounder to the pitcher, I think sometimes he's just so focused on hitting he forgets," he said.

After Manuel's mound visit, Durbin threw five straight fastballs -- never a breaking ball. You challenge a tense player, one being taunted for taking an early shower perhaps, with fastballs. Don't "speed up his bat" with off-speed stuff. The pitch sequence chart was elegant: a waist-high strike barely on the outside corner followed by four pitches that were all several inches off the plate -- one to each quadrant: low-and-in (chase, foul off shin), high and away, low and away and, finally, on 2-2, a fastball tailing up and in. Ramírez swung at a final pitch that almost hit him, shattered his bat and caused a 40-foot dribbler to the pitcher.

Such moments when long personal history and immediate strategy meet, when the influences of the specific game situation are measured against lifelong patterns, that is where baseball lives. To function in the midst of such a swirl of information and uncertainty requires a personality capable of simultaneous calm and concentration -- a fragile condition, possessed by few players.

The Phillies have an utterly abnormal number of them. That's why in the late inning of tight games or when they trail or, especially, in the postseason, this Philadelphia team plays its best and most poised baseball. It's no accident. The combination of calm and intense focus is wrapped around them like a protective cloak.

"He who would be calm must first put on the appearance of calm," wrote Shakespeare.

"I may use that," said Charlie.

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