Charlie Manuel: An Appreciation

Charlie Manuel: An Appreciation

from "The Phillie Phanatic's Parade of Champions" by Tom Burgoyne and illustrator Len Epstein

I remember a lot about Charlie Manuel's early days as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Mostly that people sure didn't like him, at all.

The 2005 team, in Manuel's first season, were the Bobby Abreu/Kenny Lofton/David Bell Phillies, the Ed Wade-built team that a whole lot of fans couldn't stand despite yearly winning records. And that extended to the manager.

He was as un-Philly as can be, a man who didn't talk or act anything like a "Philly guy." He was 60 when he was hired but could have passed for a decade older. Manuel spoke with a heavy regional accent of a region that is not ours, he made head-scratching strategic moves, and never explained them to anyone's satisfaction in the postgame press conference. Even though the '05 Phils won 88 games and weren't eliminated from playoff contention until the final day of the season, Charlie finished his first season far from a popular man.

Manuel followed Larry Bowa who, though a California native, was a longtime ex-Phillies player and veteran of the 1980 team who had an Italian-American surname, which sort of made him an honorary "Philly guy," unsuccessful as his managerial tenure was. Bowa had also been a member of the media in the past -- a vocation to which he's since returned -- and had some fans in that constituency.

In the first couple of years, a whole lot of fans either wished the Phils had kept Bowa and fired Ed Wade, or hired Jim Leyland instead of Charlie. And remember that weird conspiracy theory about how Manuel was only hired, first as hitting coach and then as manager, as some sort of backroom deal to appease Jim Thome?

Charlie had that postgame shouting match with Howard Eskin, and he fought septuagenarian ex-manager Dallas Green on the field before a game, in an incident I dubbed "Age in the Cage." Even Charlie's longtime fiancé lashed out at the city's "culture of negativity," in a much-forgotten episode right after the end of the 2005 season.

But after '05, Charlie was retained and Wade was fired. I remember when Pat Gillick was hired as general manager, and the talk radio conventional wisdom was that the Phils were now run by two out-of-town old guys. At one point, as the team struggled early in the '06 season, it looked like Charlie's firing could be imminent.

But then, suddenly, everything turned around. The team fought back and won the NL East in '07, overtaking the collapsing Mets on the last day of the season to end a 14-year postseason drought.

The next year, of course, they won the World Series, and Charlie showed up in the parade in a dapper suit. Three more NL East titles followed as the Phils established themselves as one of baseball's elite franchises.

There was still grumbling about in-game moves, of course. But after '08, most Phillies fans were pretty firmly on Team Charlie. Championships, after all, have a way of reversing bad first impressions. I always felt like the original rejection of Charlie Manuel had a lot more to do with the way he looked and talked than his actual skill as a manager, and over time fans got used to that.

And now he's out the door, the victim of having to manage a roster abominably constructed by GM Ruben Amaro, full of past-their-prime veterans, ill-advised free agent signees and non-prospects up from the farm. Sure, he was likely gone at the end of the year anyway. But it's still sad to see his Phillies tenure end the way it did. Manuel is the first manager fired at midseason from a team he won the World Series with since the Diamondbacks whacked Bob Brenly in 2004.

Of course Manuel made questionable strategic moves, and that continued throughout his career. But you know what? Name a great manager who didn't. Almost every manager in the majors uses their closer wrong and at least occasionally makes head-scratching decisions about the batting order and which pinch hitter to use. Don't believe me? Ask any fan of any team. And Charlie's inability to understand the double switch was always overstated. I think he had it figured out by May or June of his first year.

How well managers "get players to play for them" is hard to quantify, of course, but Charlie seemed to do all the little, behind-the-scenes things right. There was virtually never clubhouse turmoil on Manuel's Phillies and if there was, you never heard about it in the press. You never once heard a departed player trash Charlie on the way out of town.

And I don't want to hear any of this nonsense about how Charlie Manuel or the Phillies should be ashamed that they "only won one World Series." Winning a World Series is pretty damned hard, requiring a great deal of skill as well as luck. To denigrate the achievement of the 2008 title is to minimize what happened that fall which -- I think we can all agree -- was pretty damned awesome. That argument reminds me of the people who discounted the first six years of Donovan McNabb's career because "the NFC East was weak then."

Charlie Manuel won a World Series, got to another, led the team to five straight division titles and a 102-win season, and is the 130-year-old organization's all-time winningest manager. He's the only man on the planet who has coached or managed a Philadelphia sports team to a championship in the last 25 years. Does he deserve singular credit for those achievements? Of course not. But they didn't happen by accident either, and he had to have been doing something right.

It says a lot, however, that Phillies fans were nearly unanimous in reacting to Charlie's firing with either anger, sadness or both. Back in 2006, I wouldn't have guessed it would happen that way or, for that matter, that he wouldn't be fired for seven more years.

What's next? If Charlie wrote a memoir of his decades in the game, I'd absolutely read it. For all he was mocked for his drawl, I'd love to see him give broadcasting a shot. I could see some club, maybe one with a younger manager, bringing Charlie in as a bench coach. And it's not outside the realm of possibility that he gets another managing job.

Charlie Manuel is part of a vanishing breed in the game -- the pure baseball lifer. He came up as a player in the  late 1960s and has been around the game in a variety of capacities ever since. Read Mark Bechtel's great Sports Illustrated profile of Charlie from June 2009, if you haven't before -- some great stories, and even greater appreciation for the man.

Most of all, Charlie proved that you don't necessarily have to be a "Philly guy" to succeed in Philly.

Stephen Silver is  a local journalist who writes for EntertainmentTell and Philadelphia magazine's Philly Post. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday in the season opener (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular-season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot, it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as the big man liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 minutes and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fadeaway jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guys' first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).