During Charlie Manuel’s first spring training as manager of the Phillies, players raved about the change in atmosphere around the clubhouse. For the first time since Terry Francona managed the team, the ballplayers felt relaxed and able to do their jobs without a screaming and spittle-filled tirade from the man in charge.
Manuel was just what the Phillies needed, the players said. In an era where the average salary for a baseball player was a little more than $2 million, there was no need for extra motivation.
A screaming manager or coach not only is the personification of bush league and a throwback to ridiculous archetype, but also is just silly. When Larry Bowa was finally let go and replaced with Manuel, everyone was happy.
Yes, Manuel was a good man who fostered an environment in which ballplayers could easily go about their jobs without the annoyance of reprisal. Manuel figured a relaxed ballplayer was a good ballplayer.
But Manuel was never a push over. From Jim Thome to Randy Wolf to Jimmy Rollins and all down the line, players who knew better said that Charlie was a nice and classy as could be, but…
“Don’t cross him,” players warned.
In other words, don’t mistake Manuel’s kindness for weakness.
In the years since that first spring the Phillies have been stamped with the Seal of Charlie. Unmistakably, the Phillies are Manuel’s team. The bash-and-bop style of Phillies’ offense reflects Manuel’s nature as a minor-league and Japanese League star and is reminiscent of his teams in Cleveland. There, with Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle in the middle of the order and Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton setting the table, the Indians went to the playoffs six times in seven years and to the World Series twice in three seasons.
The Phillies clearly aren’t good as those Cleveland teams, but the formula is the same.
Charlie is the same, too. Don’t cross him.
Jimmy Rollins, the diva-like reigning NL MVP, learned as much on two different occasions this season. Once when Rollins failed to hustle down the first-base line on an easy pop fly that dropped in for an error, and another time when the shortstop showed up late for a game at Shea Stadium, Manuel yanked him from the lineup and put him on the bench.
To Charlie, an MVP trophy doesn’t mean a player stops being accountable.
Accountability isn’t just about hustling and showing up on time, either. Ask starting pitcher Brett Myers about that.
Saturday night, Myers made the mistake of shouting, “This is my [bleeping] game,” toward Manuel as he ambled out to the mound to make the pitching change. Despite his teammates’ calls for him to knock it off, Myers continued shouting at Manuel until he made a hasty retreat toward the back of the dugout.
Though Myers has been good since returning from his month-long exile to the minors the get his pitching back in order and he had held the Pittsburgh Pirates to a run and five hits through 7 2/3 innings and 92 pitches to that point in the game, the pitcher didn’t think the fact that the Pirates had three straight lefties coming up nor that he had given up three hard hit balls that inning meant much.
But that all changed when the pitcher turned around after continuing his tirade in the dugout only to find Charlie bearing down on him, screaming and pawing at the insolent pitcher’s left shoulder. When the argument spilled to the runway leading back to the clubhouse, Charlie finally had to be pulled away lest the heated exchange turn physical.
That would have been something.
Some speculated in jest that Myers would have had an advantage if it come to fisticuffs since he was trained as a boxer before turning to baseball as a teenager. Perhaps. But boxer or not, Myers clearly doesn’t have Manuel’s toughness – mental or physical. For one, Manuel has had cancer, a heart attack and bypass surgery. When he returned to work for the Indians after cancer surgery, he kept a colostomy bag under his jacket.
That’s tough. The crazy came from his playing days when Manuel brawled with manager Billy Martin as a rookie with the Twins. Later, while playing in Japan, Manuel famously fought the East German hockey team (all of them), and was beaned in the face with a pitch and played despite the fact that he couldn’t eat solid food.
So a precious little boxer from Florida who once allegedly fought his wife on a crowded Boston street can’t really be a match for the much older manager, can he?
Yeah, Myers may have thought it was his game, but the Phillies are very clearly Charlie’s team.
After the game when things cooled down a bit, Myers apologized and admitted he was wrong for showing up his manager.
“I’m a competitor,” Myers said. “I like competing and I wanted to stay in and finish the game. But sometimes your emotions get the best of you and you might do something irrational out there. He thought I did. That’s part of the game. It’s all patched up now, though. We’re buddies.”
Since rejoining the Phillies after his demotion to the minors, Myers is 2-0 with a 2.10 ERA in four starts. His two wins are against Washington and Pittsburgh – combined those teams are 97-138 this season.
“I missed a month without being here with the team and I wanted to try to prove myself again that I can pitch in the big leagues - and I wanted to stay out there as long as I could,” Myers said. “He made the decision and that's his decision.”
Manuel didn’t take blame or apologize afterwards. Actually, it seemed as if he kind of enjoyed the confrontation, noting that it was just a matter of two guys having a disagreement.
“He's fine,” Manuel said as if Myers’ ego was injured more than anything else. “He just wanted to stay in the game and I like that. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, if he didn't want to stay in the game, I'd probably be mad.”
He certainly wasn’t mad about taking Myers out of the game though – just as he wasn’t upset about disciplining Rollins.
“I'll tell you something: his confidence got back. That's why I took him out of the game. I wasn't going to let him lose the game. He was leaving on a high note, and there's four left-handed hitters standing there,” Manuel said. “I wasn't going to give him a chance to get hit. He already pitched a good game and did a good job.”
Is there a method to Charlie’s madness? Probably not. After all, he was the ballplayer described in the essential book about Japanese baseball called You Gotta Have Wa as, “a big, red-haired character from West Virginia with a talent for producing anarchy out of order.”
The ironic thing is that it has been the exact opposite in Philadelphia. There might not be a method to the madness, but it certainly is effective.
Apparently, Opening Day for the 2008 baseball season is today or tomorrow or soon. The reason why I can't pin it down in my head is because the Red Sox and the A's will play the opener in Japan. The Red Sox, in case folks have forgotten, play their home games in Boston. Though the so-called New England "hub" is home to all sorts of people from all over the world, it hasn't picked up and moved to Japan. It's still up there north of Cape Cod and south of New Hampshire last time anyone checked.
Oakland, the home of the A's, remains in the United States of America, too. Out in California's Bay Area, Oakland has the reputation as being the ugly cousin of next-door neighbor, San Francisco. But the truth is Oakland was named by Rand McNally as having the best weather in the U.S. And according to the 2000 U.S. census, Oakland is the most ethnically diverse city in the country.
Boston is also home to the most ravenous baseball fans in the country where the big-moneyed Sox have supplanted the deep-pocketed Yankees as baseball's best team to hate. Perhaps winning the World Series twice in the past four years gives a team that kind of reputation.
The A's, meanwhile, are the opposite of the Red Sox when it comes to buying the best players needed, but helped establish the blueprint for how modern baseball front offices are run. In essence, the Red Sox have cribbed the A's and general manager Billy Beane's notes only they have the cash to back it up.
However, in the early 1970s, the A's were the most dominant and disliked team in baseball. With stars like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue, the A's won the World Series three years in a row with flamboyant and controversial owner Charlie Finley pulling the strings.
Plus, the A's went to the World Series three years in a row from 1988 to 1990 and have been to the playoffs five times since 2000.
Needless to say the Red Sox and A's have some impressive recent history and are clearly a pair of the better franchises in all of baseball. As a result, the fans in both cities are some of the savviest in the Major Leagues, which means a ballgame in Oakland or Boston - especially an Opening Day game - is as good a venue as any place in the world.
So why would the Red Sox and A's want to play the first batch of baseball games of the season in Japan?
Well, actually they don't, but the players got paid an extra $40,000 to make the trip to help Major League Baseball internationalize a game in a country where it already is king. The Japanese are as baseball crazy as any country in the world and the Japanese big leagues are more than just a proving ground for potential Major Leaguers.
It would be one thing if the Major League teams never staged exhibitions in Japan, but that's not the case. In fact, U.S. ballclubs have been touring Japan since the 1930s when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig barnstormed through the Far East. Recently, big league All-Stars play Japanese All-Stars in a series up and down the island where they are just as well known as they would be in most big U.S. cities. After all, the American game is followed fairly closely in Japan. In fact, Japanese media outlets send teams of reporters to cover the dozens of Japanese players toiling away in the big leagues.
So why "internationalize" something that is just as ubiquitous there as it is here? Is MLB out-smarting itself again? Don't you hate when that happens?
More importantly, the A's are losing a pair of home games, which to the fans in Oakland is kind of like a kick in the crotch. Though there are 162 games in the baseball season, each one of them is precious and has equal importance. Think about how much wear-and-tear a team goes through by crossing the International Dateline in all-day flights just to play a game that feels like an exhibition but really counts toward the bottom line. And that's not just the bottom line in the standings, either. It also counts in the stats ledger where ballplayers' fortunes and futures are decided. Let's just say a pitcher goes out and gets shelled because his body clock is all messed up from such a long trip. Or maybe he can't shake the lethargy because he's used to eating grits and home fries at the Waffle House on the way to the ballpark every morning and because he's out of his tried-and-true routine, the pitches have no snap, his ERA balloons and he gets released at the end of the season.
Is that fair? And is it fair to assume that a Major League Baseball player knows there are no Waffle Houses in Japan. Come on... what was the first thing Kyle Kendrick asked the press when they played that little prank on him about getting traded to Japan? You remember -- it was about the food.
"Do they have good food over there?"
Yeah, but don't expect the International House of Pancakes to be truly international.
So the A's and Red Sox opened the season in Japan and here in the U.S. fans are getting the shaft... again. Worse, the A's are losing two games in their home ballpark, which can't be replaced for any amount of cash.
Coming up: The Beijing Olympics followed by Jimmy Rollins. Later, we go to the ballpark.