At first, Jayson Werth didn’t want to say much about the man who most formed his career. “I thought he deserved better,” Werth said about Charlie Manuel, who parted ways with the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday afternoon after nine seasons, 780 wins, two National League pennants and a 2008 World Series ring. “That’s about all I want to say on that.”
But with one more question, Werth couldn’t help himself.
Werth, 34 and owner of one of the largest contracts in baseball history and certainly the largest ever doled out by the Nationals, credits the player he is to the man who first gave him a chance early in his unsual career. It’s the same man who argued with him, taught him valuable baseball lessons and then watched him become a World Series hero.
“I owe him a lot,” said Werth, standing at his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at Turner field, talking about Manuel for nearly 15 minutes. “I took a lot for me to win him over, but once he put me in there, he believed in me as much if not more than anyone I’ve ever played for. I owe him a lot. He was the one that kind of pushed me to become the player I became.”
Werth’s non-traditional career arc took him to Philadelphia in 2007. He played only 191 games over two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2004 to 2005, but a wrist injury from 2005 lingered and forced him to undergo surgery and miss the entire 2006 season. He came to the Phillies, signed by then-general manager Pat Gillick, ready to prove himself all over again and earn an everyday playing time. Werth was Gillick’s guy and not Manuel’s guy yet.
In his third start of the 2007 season, Werth went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts against Houston’s Roy Oswalt, and then didn’t start again for another two weeks. “It wasn’t like he was putting me in a situation to succeed,” Werth said. “I truly believe at the time it was actually the opposite.” In arguing for more playing time, Werth had several self-described arguments with Manuel behind closed doors. At one point, Werth even brought his highlight reel from his time with the Dodgers and plopped it on Manuel’s desk.
“Charlie talked about it with the media,” Werth said. “He thought it was funny that I’d have the [guts] to come in there and do it. If you want something bad enough, you’ll do anything for it and I think that’s one thing, in the end, Charlie really liked about me, I guess, that I could do that. But we would go back and forth about playing time and why I wasn’t playing. He would be very frank with me about why he wasn’t playing me and where he thought I was as a player.
“Those things, that [upset me]. That drove me to be better. I didn’t like it by any means but when the guy who writes the lineup up is telling you you’re not good enough to play, not only will it drive you but some people it might drive to quit. It’s not an easy conversation to sit there and listen to somebody, your boss basically, tell you that you suck, many times.”
After injuries to outfielders Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino around the trade deadline that season, Werth got his chance. He had one hit during his minor league rehab assignment but was thrust into the starting lineup on Aug. 2. He went 3 for 6 and drove in four runs against the Cubs that day. He hit .414 that month and played every day.
“That was really when I knew things were okay with Charlie,” Werth said. “And that’s how he is. If you perform for him, he’s going to like you. That’s how this business is. This is a cutthroat business, as you can tell. The guy gets whacked today. It sucks.”
Even in 2008, Werth began the season platooning right field with Geoff Jenkins. He finally won the job for good by June, after Manuel challenged him to improve against right-handed pitching. The rest is a history familiar to Nationals fans. Werth was a key part of the Phillies teams that won NL East titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and won one World Series in two tries. Werth then signed with Washington in 2011 for $126 million over seven years.
“He’s the best manager I ever played for, nothing against Davey [Johnson],” Werth said.
Werth said he talked with Manuel in May and his old boss vowed to manage again next season, before Manuel parted ways with the Phillies after a dismal season. Asked if he would like to see Manuel managing the Nationals next season, after Johnson retires, Werth said: “Oh of course. I don’t know if he fits into the organization’s plan or whatever, but I mean, I love playing for the guy.”
Added Johnson: “I think they’ve had their fill of old managers. I have no idea. I haven’t had those discussions with [General Manager Mike Rizzo] and what he has on his mind. He’s a good one. I like him.”
Johnson has crossed paths with Manuel for decades, from playing in Japan to the major leagues, and the two are friends.
“I liked seeing him around because he was one of the old guys,” Johnson said. “I think I had him by maybe a year in age. I don’t know who’s next in line now, but I always had comfort in knowing that he was still working and he was over there.”