Phillies Players Take Care of Their Own
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, October 11, 2008; E08
Not too many people understand Brett Myers. Not too many want to. But Charlie Manuel does. Typical of him.
What the Phillies manager understands about the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Myers is that he needs the occasional nose-to-nose high volume conversation in the dugout with a man his own size, even if Charlie's 64 and has survived cancer and two mild heart attacks.
Manuel doesn't care. Play the game right, you'll laugh together. Play it wrong, as Myers did this summer when he showed up Manuel after being taken out of a game, and he's in your face. You'll understand how he hit those 48 homers once in Japan. Either way, the next day, he'll say, "Go get 'em, kid." All is forgotten. And he's got your back.
On Friday afternoon in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, it was time for the Phillies to have Charlie Manuel's back, to do for him what he always does for them: pick them up when they're down.
Just hours before this game, Manuel learned that his 87-year-old mother June, who suffered a heart attack two days ago, had died. Behind the batting cage before the game, Manuel was silent, nodding as friends shook his hand, said they were sorry, patted his back and walked away. As the game approached, he forced himself to change his mood, to talk to players and seem normal.
But the whole team felt the same emotion. "Pretty upsetting," Jayson Werth said. "A team is like another family. Charlie was calm and collected, as always. But I can't imagine anything like that on a day like this."
Before the game, Myers, who might seem like the Phillie least likely to feel close to Manuel, grabbed his manager in a hug and said, "I'm going to win this game for your mom." Then Myers beat the Dodgers, 8-5, albeit with a scruffy five innings, while getting three hits and three RBI. "Charlie's been so good to us," Myers said. "We gotta show him some love, too."
So, the Phillies are now halfway to the World Series yet were so concerned with their manager's feelings that they barely noticed that they did it. "Your heart goes out to him. We all quietly felt that way," said third baseman Greg Dobbs, who had two hits and scored twice. "You want to take some of the sadness away from him."
The best of Manuel, whom coach Davey Lopes calls "a big old good-natured country boy who can be tough if he has to be," was on display through his players' response to him. Perhaps Manuel's silence on the subject, both before and after the game, also had a message. In an era when everybody talks about everything, he didn't say a word.
"It's a heavy heart," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said. "Charlie was telling me how he talked to his mom and her concern for him was only go out there and win ballgames.
"Sometimes the game gives you a place to hide."
If his mother's death sheds a bit of attention on Manuel, who may avoid the spotlight better than any manager or coach of any successful team in a major sport, then it will be appropriate. His interplay with Myers defines his style.
Manuel studies the game, but he studies people a lot more. And he knows Myers. No, not the unsavory guy who hit his wife near Fenway Park in '06 but got off after she told the judge they were both drinking and she wasn't hurt much. Everybody knows that about Myers. What Manuel knows about his pitcher is that he loves to be loved, hates to be hated, flourishes at home with the crowd behind him, but can wilt on the road when the crowd Googles the crude stuff he's done and throws it back in his face.
Not many managers would go out of their way to make life easier for Myers, who sometimes makes life harder for others. But Manuel set this NLCS up so Myers would be his only pitcher to work twice at home, never on the road.
With the crowd egging him on, Myers clipped a clean line drive over second base in a four-run Phillies second off Chad Billingsley, then chipped an ugly slicing liner just over the first base bag for a two-run hit to knock out Billingsley in a four-run Philadelphia third inning.
That doesn't happen in Chávez Ravine, promise. But it happens here. In Game 2 against Milwaukee, Myers, usually an awful hitter, kept a game-winning rally alive by drawing a nine-pitch walk off CC Sabathia.
"I'm baffled. I had four hits all season. Now I got four hits in the postseason," said Myers, who slightly twisted his ankle running the bases.
Players respond to Manuel's easy encouragement in ways they don't quite understand and play their best for him, even if Mensa doesn't have him on managerial speed dial. Even Myers admits, "Charlie's good," though he has to keep watching that replay of the old West Virginian yelling every name in the book in his face this summer.
What's his secret in handling pitchers? "I don't know. I guess that's why it's a secret," said Myers, cryptically. "Charlie's always there to back you, no matter. Always the first guy to pat you on the back, saying 'Hang in there.' "
Now, the Phillies are returning the favor. "It seemed like June was doing a little better when Charlie and I talked about it last night," Lopes said. "Sure, she was elderly, but, come on, it's your mom."
This is the age when managers know fancy stats, read psychology books, have a smooth act for the TV cameras and try to avoid looking like they're smuggling a medicine ball under their shirts. Manuel's the throwback. When he quotes stats, they're a-l-w-a-y-s slightly wrong. In front of a mike, he looks like a man faced with a cobra who has forgotten his flute. If he split the atom, he'd make it sound as if his coaches did it just as he stumbled in the room.
If he resembles a manager, it may be the almost forgotten Dodgers manager, Walter Alston, whom Manuel played for briefly. Charlie never forgot the reserved Alston sitting down at breakfast with him, chatting about nothing much with a no-chance rookie, then picking up the check.
Manuel's the same, the rare manager who eats with the rookie, chats with the scrub and star indistinguishably. Credit avoids him, which suits him fine; he was Manny Ramírez's hitting coach his first six years in the majors. "Manny'll make you a smart hitting coach," he says.
The Phillies' manager is a people watcher, always figuring out who you are. Talk to him and he never starts by discussing a batting stroke or a strong arm. Who does he want in the trenches with him? Who has to go? Who has so much talent that his lousy personality is worth enduring?
"He manages the game, but he manages people even better," Lopes said.
We all have our favorites. I like the old-timers, like Manuel, who look forbidding on the outside, but keep everything good and clean about themselves on the inside.
The Phillies are a team that sometimes needs to be slightly distracted from its goal, from the pressure of trying to be a success and, instead, simply focus on the details of playing excellently. If the Phillies continue to pay attention to playing the game exactly the way Manuel would want, instead of worrying about whether they are winning and what Philly will think of them if they do or don't, they're liable to find themselves in the World Series before they know it.
Take Charlie along for the ride. He's earned it.