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Managing to succeed

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 22

This column was supposed to coincide with Charlie Manuel passing Gene Mauch in victories and becoming the winningest manager in Phillies history. Instead, it coincides with the Phillies’ worst finish to a season since Mauch’s Phillies infamous 1964 collapse.

Fortunately, unlike the 1964 squad, the 2011 Phillies wrapped up the division championship before hitting the skids.

Manuel needs four victories during the Phillies’ final seven games (as I write this column on Thurs., Sept. 22) to catch Mauch in career victories as a Phillies manager. He may not catch Mauch this season, but, in many ways, Manuel has already surpassed Mauch.

Mauch accumulated 646 victories during nine seasons with the Phillies. His tenure as Phillies manager ended midway through the 1968 season, leaving Mauch with a 646-684 career record (.486 winning percentage) with the Phillies.

By contrast, Manuel’s record as Phillies manager entering Thursday’s series finale with the Nationals was 642-485, a .570 winning percentage. Manuel, finishing up his seventh season as Phillies manager, has led the Phillies to five straight National League East titles. He also, of course, led the Phillies to the 2008 World Series championship. In fact, if you add in Manuel’s 25 (yes, that’s right, twenty-five) postseason victories, he long ago surpassed Mauch, who, of course, had zero postseason victories at the helm of the Phillies.

Manuel has much more in common with Dallas Green than Mauch. Manuel and Green are the only managers in the 128-year history of the Phillies franchise to win the World Series. It was only fitting, therefore, that Manuel received the Dallas Green Award for special achievement Wednesday.

Receiving the Dallas Green Award is a tremendous accomplishment for a man who didn’t get the warmest of receptions when he was hired as Phillies manager. For those who have forgotten, Manuel was booed lustily when introduced as Phillies manager before the 2005 home opener.

The boos were not directed at Manuel as much as they were directed at team management. The popular Larry Bowa had been fired at the end of the 2004 season. Many observers felt the Phillies had better choices, particularly Jim Leyland, to become the team’s next manager. Still, Manuel was the lightning rod for the fans’ frustration and outrage.

The complaints about Manuel ranged from his inauspicious three seasons as Indians manager (220-190) to the perception that he had been hired as a favor to slugger Jim Thome, who still considers Manuel his mentor. Manuel didn’t help himself with his stumbling answers to questions at news conferences. To Mid-Atlantic ears, Manuel sounded like an uneducated country bumpkin. In hindsight, however, Phillies management couldn’t have made a better choice to manage this team.

Manuel will never be considered a strategic genius. His greatest asset is not his ability to manage a game. His greatest asset is his ability to manage people.

Managing a clubhouse of wealthy ballplayers isn’t easy. There are egos to massage, issues to solve and personalities to manage. In those areas, Manuel has been brilliant.

Manuel has demonstrated that you don’t need to be an intellectual to manage a baseball team. Street smarts are at least as valuable as book smarts.

This isn’t meant to imply that Manuel is dumb. He speaks Japanese and is known as one of the best hitting instructors in baseball. Don’t be fooled by Manuel’s accent or his public speaking style, which resembles a combination of a CD on random play and a record player with a worn-out needle that continuously skips.

Manuel’s circuitous answers and, at times, mysterious logic used to be ridiculed. Now, when mentioned at all, Manuel’s speaking style is considered folksy and endearing. He used to derisively be called “Uncle Charlie.” Now, any references to Uncle Charlie are said in an affectionate manner. Five straight NL East titles will do that for you.

The transformation of Manuel’s image is evident in the fans’ reaction. When he made his debut as Phillies manager, he was booed. Now the fans chant “Charlie! Charlie!” when he emerges from the dugout to argue with an umpire or speaks at a pep rally.

The best part of this transformation is that everyone seems happy for Manuel. He is widely considered a genuinely nice person. Nobody seems to begrudge him his incredible – and largely unexpected – success. When Manuel was hired seven years ago, nobody envisioned him becoming the winningest manager in Phillies history.

Manuel might not catch Mauch this season. In truth, however, he passed Mauch a long time ago.

A second World Series title would leave little doubt that Manuel is the best manager in Phillies history.

In fact, a second World Series championship should cause the Phillies to consider renaming their special achievement award the Dallas Green/Charlie Manuel Award.


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