A couple of years during the height of the off-season war of words between the Phillies and the Mets, I asked Charlie Manuel if the bantering back and forth bothered him. To be fair, nearly all of it was a media creation and no one realized at the time that the Mets were overrated. Simply, the Mets weren’t anything the Phillies needed to worry about.
So the question was broached if Charlie enjoyed the trash talk on any level and if it motivated him or his team.
“No, not really,” he said. “I prefer if we just play.”
Hard to argue with that, though Charlie said he didn’t mind the yapping and wasn’t even considering bringing it up with his team, which, to me, was the most interesting part.
See, Manuel trusted his players and wasn’t going to get wrapped up in any type of silliness. His job was to create an environment where all his players had to do was their job. That’s it. Manuel knows that ballplayers making millions of dollars don’t need someone to motivate them with yelling and bluster. Instead, the Phillies manager tells his players how good they are and how they help the team win games.
He makes them feel like going to work.
Yes, if there is one thing Charlie Manuel knows a lot about it’s how to keep his team motivated. It’s simple, really. He lets his players play and if they do the job better than someone else, they get the job. He also perfectly balances that ideology with one where he doesn’t abandon a struggling player. When Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge slumped during the second half of 2009 and early 2010, Manuel was in their corner. Eventually, the players returned to their old form and pointed to Manuel’s support as a driving force.
Everything can be used to be a motivator. When the Phillies were underdogs trying to find their way through their early playoff runs, Manuel fell back on a line popularized by Ric Flair, the 14-time heavyweight world champion of professional rasslin’. It’s the same line he used during a media session on Thursday afternoon when discussing the notion that the Phillies had moved past underdog status and to the favorites to win the World Series.
Manuel says he was reminded of the old Ric Flair axiom when he saw old protégé Pat Burrell on television on Thursday morning talking about how the Phillies were the top team until another team knocked them out.
“I heard Burrell in an interview morning, when I woke up and turned the TV on. He said, 'To be the best you've got to beat the best.' That's one of my slogans,” Manuel said. “It's Ric Flair. You’re going to Space Mountain... What the hell? You know what happens at Space Mountain? You’ve got to get there and you’ve got to conquer it. You’ve got to stay there. That’s kind of what we want to do.”
Now for those who have hung around the Phils’ manager a bit, the Ric Flair quote is nothing new. In fact, it comes out a couple of times a year while chatting before a game in the dugout. Manuel, like a lot of us who grew up in the age of limited TV options, loves the rasslin’, though he altered The Nature Boy’s mantra a bit from, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man,” a bit he even used for his autobiography.
Still, you have to like a man who uses the words of a pro wrestler as way of keeping the troops ready instead of, say, a president. And Manuel knows a thing about presidents, too. After all, the trip to the White House in May of 2009 made Barack Obama is the sixth sitting president that Manuel has met, a distinguished list that includes George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Harry S Truman.
One of the more interesting meetings with a president came when Manuel ran into President Clinton before the first game at Jacobs Field where the President was on hand to throw the ceremonial first pitch. Clinton was waiting in the restroom adjacent to the dugout to go onto the field to make his pitch when Manuel went into the room.
“What are you doing in here?” the president asked Manuel.
“I was going to take a leak.” Manuel answered.
When Manuel was a freshman in high school he attended a parade in Lexington, Va. when then ex-president Truman asked him to hold open a door. The two chatted briefly before parting ways, but who would have known then that Manuel would meet five more presidents along the way.
“Reagan asked me if there is anything he could do for me,” Manuel remembered. “And I said, ‘Yeah, help me get a job as a big league manager.’”
That one Manuel probably did on his own by dropping lines from champion rasslers.