Will Manuel's contract be a distraction for Phillies?

Will Manuel's contract be a distraction for Phillies?

February 18, 2013, 1:00 pm
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It started as a whisper, picked up by the cool Clearwater breeze and whisked along to the people who needed to hear it. Soon, the message was clear enough: Charlie Manuel wants to talk about his contract, get it out of the way, get it over and done with.

The manager is in the last year of his deal. He is 69. The Phillies are coming off a disappointing season that produced as many losses as wins. And right over there, barely at arm’s length, is Ryne Sandberg – the new third base coach and the man some people openly talk about replacing Manuel in the not-too-distant/very-near future.

Manuel was asked about his contract during the offseason. It seemed to irritate him. That is not the same thing, of course, as being asked about his contract during spring training, when the media increases coverage and fans pay attention. Manuel knows that. And so the whispers. And so the conversation.

Over the weekend, the writers filed into a windowless room at Bright House Field and sat down, per usual. But it was not the usual discussion. The subject was broached delicately, but everyone knew what was happening – Manuel included. The message had been received.

Manuel – who said his “record is just as good as anybody’s in baseball” – made sure to qualify his comments. He said he doesn’t want to sound like an “I/me” guy. He didn’t. He’s not. And yet he was obviously frustrated that he had to defend himself and outline his value.

“I shouldn’t have to explain it to anybody,” Manuel said. “The team or President Obama or anybody.”

It was a funny line – a Manuel kind of line. He got going and it slipped out and everyone laughed. Manuel laughed a little, too – but only a little.

Manuel is right. He shouldn’t have to explain himself. His accomplishments are significant. He has more wins than any manager in franchise history. He won five consecutive NL East titles, two National League pennants and a World Series. He helped end the city’s insufferable 25-year-championship drought. As Manuel said, if he “needed to get established as a major-league manager, I definitely did that.”

Indeed he did. Accordingly, he shouldn’t have to defend himself or remind everyone what he’s done. He shouldn’t have to – but that won’t stop people from wondering aloud about his circumstances even though he’d rather they didn’t.

“This is the last time I’ll answer it about my deal, OK?” Manuel said.

It might be the last time he’ll answer, but it will not be the last time he’s asked. It’s unavoidable. That’s the situation the Phillies created.

There are three scenarios this season: 1.) The Phillies play well, return to form, challenge for the NL East and look like contenders. 2.) The Phillies are a middle-of-the-pack unit. Up one day, down the next, their destiny uncertain, not unlike last year. 3.) They struggle.

In the first case, people will ask why Manuel hasn’t gotten an extension. The narrative would be that he earned it, and that it’s unfair that his love for, and loyalty to, the franchise is seemingly unrequited. In the second case, the limbo hypothetical, there will be questions about his fate – will he stay or will he go? The last one is basically Andy Reid Redux – another season of waiting for the inevitable end.

As a staunch Manuel supporter within the organization said, Manuel has one important piece of jewelry that Reid never secured. That is true, but Manuel’s ring – sadly for him – does not come with a nifty superpower force field. It will not shield him from queries about his deal, despite the remonstrative declaration that he will not discuss it.

Again, this is unfortunate, because it is not Manuel’s doing. He deserves better. He is an easy man to like, and he has achieved more than any Phillies manager in the history of Phillies managers. The team should have extended him before the season (the choice I would have selected) or bought him a very expensive gold watch and a delicious cake and thanked him for his service before moving along without him. One or the other. This middle ground – complete with a readymade and popular potential successor who will loom all year at third base – is dangerous, and it could end up ugly for everyone involved.

Manuel reminded reporters that Joe Torre and Dusty Baker and some other high-profile managers have served on the last year of a deal without everything going boom and making a major mess. He also said he’s satisfied with his contract and predicted that he and David Montgomery and Ruben Amaro would “more than likely have a talk” at some point. When that point will be remains unclear to everyone, including Manuel -- which is the operative issue.

“If we lose 10 games or if we win 10 games,” Manuel said, “I don’t want nobody to ask me about [the contract].”

If only wishing made it so.