Countdown to Clearwater: Manuel's last ride?

Countdown to Clearwater: Manuel's last ride?
February 9, 2013, 7:00 am
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Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is entering the final year of his contract. (USA Today Images)

The Phillies open spring training Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla. In advance of the first workout and the countdown to opening day, we take a daily look at the top storylines in camp.

Part 1: Health

Part 2: New faces

Today: Charlie Manuel’s future

Charlie Manuel will open his ninth spring training camp as Phillies manager next week.

It could be his last.

Manuel, who turned 69 last month, is entering the final year of his contract and there is no urgency -- on his side or the team’s -- to negotiate a contract extension.

Two springs ago, it was quite a different situation. Manuel had won four consecutive NL East titles and a World Series championship. He was 67 years old and eager for a new deal. In the middle of camp, he received a two-year extension taking him through 2013.

When he signed his new deal in March 2011, Manuel made it clear that he wanted to ride the extension to its conclusion then sit down with GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and club president David Montgomery and evaluate where he stood personally and professionally. He sounded like a man at peace with where he was headed.

Whenever the subject of his future has come up this offseason, Manuel has said that he wants to manage beyond this season. That comment catches people’s attention, but Manuel often qualifies the statement by saying he’s completely focused on winning in 2013 and he’ll deal with his future later. One of Manuel’s favorite sayings is “Know thyself.” Deep down inside, he knows he’s pushing 70 and knows he’s had a great run in Philadelphia. He knows he will be reaching a crossroads at the end of the season and one of those roads could take him to retirement, though he is loath to talk about that because he needs to maintain authority and vitality and does not want to create the impression he’s coasting to the finish line because he’s not. He badly wants to win in 2013.

Is it possible that Manuel gets deep into the season, decides he wants to stay on the job, and starts pushing for an extension? Sure it is. Will he get another extension? That’s a more complicated question. Manuel is the most successful Phillies manager ever and in May will pass Gene Mauch as the longest tenured skipper in franchise history. Team elders have great respect and appreciation for the job Manuel has done. He is on a fast track to the club’s Wall of Fame and will someday graduate to the revered status of Paul Owens and Dallas Green. But that doesn’t guarantee Manuel will get another contract to manage the Phillies. It’s likely that only another World Series title would give him the hammer to get another deal with the Phillies, and even then Manuel might opt to go the Tony La Russa route and go out on top.

Eras end in baseball and there are signs that the Phillies are ready to give Ryne Sandberg a shot as manager in 2014. Sandberg, the Phils’ Triple A manager the last two seasons, will be Manuel’s third base coach in 2013. His promotion has succession plan written all over it.

Manuel’s future will not be an overriding issue in this camp. He will likely be asked about it early in camp and then it will be time to move on to more pressing matters.

But this issue will become prominent if the team struggles during the regular season. If that happens, there could be a clamor to install Sandberg as manager. While it’s possible that a poor season could lead to an in-season change, it’s difficult to imagine Amaro and Montgomery firing a man who a little over four years ago raised the World Series trophy and announced, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” A change after the season would be more likely. It is something that Manuel, the man who lives by the principal of know thyself, hinted at two years ago.

Regardless of what happens in the coming months, this could be Manuel’s last spring training as Phillies manager, and that’s pretty significant given all the success he’s had.

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