Sunday, November 2, 2008

God Bless Charlie Manuel

By Rick Morris

That headline might seem odd, inasmuch as it lauds an individual whose success is going to force me to eat dog food live on Internet television, but I won't hold that against him since that reality is my fault and not his. Charlie Manuel is one of the nicest people in baseball, a quality person who proves that you can finish first without selling out your integrity. I don't know him personally, but I know many who do, both from covering him in Cleveland and Philadelphia and those who do are so very happy for him.

Now ... to answer a question being put to me repeatedly now by my family and friends ... why would I pledge to eat dog food live on if Charlie won the World Series as a manager? Well, I first made the declaration prior to the National League Championship Series and repeated it before the World Series; I simply felt that although Charlie was superb at the "leading of people" part of managing, the postseason demands immense in-game strategic mastery and I have never felt that he was in an elite level when it came to that side. As an intellectually honest person, I have always believed in putting your money where your mouth is, and if I've been on record all this time as a Manuel doubter, shouldn't I have to pay a price if I'm wrong? This is perhaps where personal bias comes in in terms of style, as I have always related better to the button-pushers like Tony LaRussa than the laid-back skippers like Manuel. Also, I have always perceived that he got hired by the Phillies as a front office assistant as part of the team's "Suck up to Jim Thome" campaign when they were trying to ink the free agent slugger.

Frankly, I still don't consider Charlie elite in terms of the strategic side, and his "American League-style" team, reminiscent in some ways of Earl Weaver's old "pitching, defense and three-run homer" methodology, did not call for as much of that this October. I will concede that the moves he did make came up positive -- the scoreboard doesn't lie, as a certain nationally syndicated talk show host reminds us daily.

But I didn't account for this: on the other side of the ledger, getting players to play for you, Charlie Manuel may perhaps be singular in baseball history. He is absolutely beloved by his players, and it can't be ascribed to the simplistic notion that he is a complete pushover. For one thing, he wouldn't command any respect if that were the case. For another thing, he is capable of great toughness; he got fired in Cleveland when he forced Mark Shapiro to quit waffling on his future and prior to that point, he took away some of the goodies in the Indians' locker room when he felt that they were hindering the team's focus. No, Charlie Manuel is beloved for all the right reasons and he inspires in his players a devotion that can overcome what I still perceive to be shortcomings.

Would I place him among the top five managers in the game right now? No. Top ten? Probably, albeit probably towards the rear and still behind the better-balanced (in terms of leadership and strategy) Joe Maddon -- albeit Maddon really commited a faux pas when he didn't pinch-hit for his reliever in Part II of the Game V Miniseries on Wednesday night. But would I have considered Manuel for the top ten at all prior to this October? Probably not, so I concede that because of his all-time greatness on one side of the board, he's proven me wrong to some degree already. Can I think of somebody else in the game whose success I would rather see on a personal level, even if I have to suck down some Alpo in the process? Not on your life. Charlie Manuel, here's to you, and here's wishing I had the foresight to vow I would literally eat some crow -- which would probably be acceptable with a nice mild buffalo sauce.

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