Countdown to Clearwater: Manuel's last ride?

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Countdown to Clearwater: Manuel's last ride?

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.

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

NEW YORK — The clubhouse mood following the Phillies17-0 loss to the Mets Sunday was somber, in part because of the disastrous game that had just wrapped up, but also because of the tragic news of Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

“It was rough. People are devastated. I didn’t even know him and I was crushed,” Phillies starter Jake Thompson said. “I can only imagine how that clubhouse feels. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, to deal with something of that magnitude.”

Both teams paused for a moment of silence before Sunday’s game and the Mets taped a jersey bearing Fernandez’s name and number onto their dugout wall.

“This morning, that was quite a surprise,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the atmosphere of the day. “I don’t think it affected the players once the game started. It was such bad news this morning that everybody was kind of melancholy.”

Fernandez had built a strong track record against the Phillies in his young career, amassing a 2.88 ERA in six starts.

“It’s kind of cliché to say but you look at the start of his career and he could have been a Hall of Famer,” Thompson said.

Asked how he would remember facing Fernandez, Mackanin was succinct.

“He was a helluva pitcher,” he said.

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