Inside the Mind of a … Genius?

Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel, has kept a bad reputation with fans and media, but do his players feel the same?

Sunrise was still an hour away, so Charlie Manuel flipped on a series of humming lights. A world of wire and net sprang into existence.

“Awright, awright,” he said in his Appalachian accent. “You, um, you ready for this? Yeah. Awright. Are you sure?”

Yes, I’m ready for this, I thought. I’ve known how to do this since I was three.

Manuel dragged a bucket of balls to the middle of the batting cage, an insultingly short distance from the plate. Beyond the cage lay nothing but silence and blackness; we might as well have stood in outer space. “I’m just gonna throw you a few real soft ones, at first,” he said.

For heaven’s sake. I’m an American.

“Awright,” he said. “Here it comes.” He dipped his hand into the bucket and began the pitch, and I was immediately distracted by two elements of his windup.

First, he was doing it underhand. When a major-league baseball manager offers you a hitting lesson and then proceeds in a style familiar to little girls everywhere, it’s a clear sign of low expectation. Second, his face drew into a rictus of expression, lips pulled up and away from his teeth. He was smiling. Such joy is an almost unrecognizable feature on a big-league manager.

Manuel’s Phillies were a few days into spring training. Players arrived each morning and cantered into the clubhouse with a certain lift, a certain tilt, a certain swing. This year the Phillies start the season as division champions for the first time in a decade and a half. Last season was a sweaty, palpitating ride; the Phillies started by losing 11 of their first 15 games, then had key players — stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley — fall to injury. The team, which has lost more games in its history than any other team in any other professional sport, earned the dubious distinction of dropping its 10,000th as a franchise.

In those dark days, people across the city mocked the 64-year-old manager. They mocked his congenial demeanor. They mocked his decisions. They mocked his accent, and called him names. “Moron.” “Elmer Befuddled.” “Idiot.”

Then, against all prediction, the Phillies surged late in the season, winning 13 of 17 games and squeaking past the Mets to win their division and head to the playoffs for the first time since Czechoslovakia was a unified country.

And yet, in those bright days, people still mocked Manuel: the gentle moron. The kindly idiot. When it became clear that the Phillies would lose in the playoffs to Colorado, a Daily News columnist wrote, in what must have been a pass at Blue Ridge colloquial, “Sorry, Charlie. You’ve done laid all your eggs in one basket and all you have to do to cook an omelet with them is win three straight games against a team hot enough to melt a cast-iron frying pain [sic].”

Many people pined for the days of Larry Bowa, Manuel’s fiery predecessor, who spent four years exploding all over his players. Granted, he never managed to frighten his team into success. But viewed from a distance, flying Bowa shrapnel did seem effective and satisfying. The guy embodied all the wrath pent up by Phillies fans, even as he caused it. He looked like we felt.

But now here stood Charlie Manuel, the bumbling ball coach, with a baseball in his hand: “Yeah, aw, awright, here we go … ”

He lobbed the ball in my direction, and I hit a dribbler that bounced past him and his bucket. He glared at my bat, then strode to the plate to take it away. “Hitting a baseball is about balance, rhythm and technique,” he said. His stutter was gone.

“You need a 60/40 balance to the rear,” he said, “and you need to keep your hands above the ball, coming down to find your shortest distance to the ball.”

He had transformed into a creature of perfect clarity. As he tossed pitches, I apologized for missing a couple, muttering about my church’s softball league. He gave a quiet wave of his hand. A hand to say: Enough of that.

Later I mentioned that my eyes weren’t focusing properly, due to my contact lenses. “Bullcrap,” he said, chuckling.

“I went to the eye doctor.”

“Bullcrap.” A dismissive wave. “Relax yer right hand.”

Over a half-hour or so, he carved away all politeness, all embarrassment, all outside concerns and excuses, until nothing remained in my head but balance and hands and one downward angle. Everything else lay banished to the vacuum outside the cage, in the pre-dawn black.

The almighty Yogi Berra, who has uttered more malapropisms than even tongue-tied Charlie Manuel, once said, “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?” Philadelphians have long called Charlie Manuel empty-headed, and maybe in one sense, they were right.

After a shocking number of pitches and much improvement, I stepped away from the plate and looked at my left hand. A rivulet of blood ran into my palm from under my wedding band. On any other day, in any other place, I would have stopped and searched for bandages. But Manuel’s strange, quiescent manner had a propulsive quality; the calmer he became, the more I burned to knock the ball naked from its leather.

I pulled something from my finger and dropped it to the ground.

“That was a piece of my hand!” I said, grinning maniacally.

Manuel nodded. “That’s a good boy.”

I took up the bat again and thought, There’s more here than first appears.

ENTERING A MAJOR LEAGUE clubhouse is like stepping into the paddock before a Thoroughbred race: High-strung and expensive athletes stamp their hooves and snort, wound tight by pressure and competition. It’s purposeful. Owners keep players, like horses, pushed to the nervous peak where performance meets breakdown. A manager must corral and focus that energy.

Phillies GM Pat Gillick says that’s quite a trick. Players make enormous money now — more than their managers, often — and they can move on quickly. “These guys are almost independent contractors, making millions of dollars,” he says. “There are only so many techniques you can use with them.”

That was Larry Bowa’s trouble, Gillick says. Bowa is a great coach, but a terrible manager. He’s a genius with the hardware of baseball, the strategy, the numbers. And Manuel’s been beaten up by fans and the Philly media for shakiness in those areas, for being a step behind with his in-game strategy. But people who understand the demands of managing debunk the idea that Charlie is, well, dumb.

“The average baseball manager — a C-minus or D-plus — is a better manager than most Fortune 500 CEOs,” Jeff Angus told me recently. He’s a baseball and business expert who wrote a book about both, Management By Baseball. “A baseball manager is making 300 critical decisions per game. Most CEOs would melt down.”

The notion that Charlie Manuel is an idiot — “Elmer Befuddled” — is ludicrous, Angus said: “With baseball, we have this illusion of certainty. And fans in Philadelphia are unusually sophisticated. But knowing the game and managing the game are not the same.”

Anyway, those decisions — whom to play, when to remove a pitcher and so forth — are endlessly debated but overrated. The most important part of managing baseball is the same as managing anything — dealing with people, in this case ridiculously well-paid entertainers who perform feats of athletic derring-do before millions of people. Derring-do that requires great focus and confidence. When Larry Bowa exploded in the dugout, which he frequently did, he spooked his players.

Bowa wasn’t unique. When some major-league baseball managers walk through their clubhouses, players visibly stiffen. But when Manuel walks through the Phillies clubhouse, the players do the opposite. They relax. He’s got two children of his own — a son and daughter — but Manuel serves as a father figure to his whole roster of players. Among them, he almost looks like a bobble-head of himself, endlessly nodding and smiling.

“He is our leader,” Ryan Howard told me. “Charlie keeps us loose.”

Manuel’s biggest liability — by all appearances, at least — might be his terrible communication skills. In press conferences, the bright lights seem to overexpose his thoughts, so that he ends up sputtering half-sentences and jumbled metaphors. Like the time a few years back when, asked about then-first baseman Jim Thome, he uncorked, “I think, I think that Jimmy, I think Jimmy, he’s been here two years now, and I think that he also has to like, you gotta get to know him, and I think the more, the longer he’s here and the fact that, you know, like, just once he feels like he’s settled in and everything … ” And so forth.

One of his more eloquent moments came when reporters asked him how a pitcher had managed to injure himself in his sleep. “I don’t know,” Manuel said. “I didn’t sleep with him.”

Yet his players hold a different view. Down at spring training, I asked pitcher Tom Gordon how Manuel ranks among the managers he’s played for. “I’d say Charlie might be the best,” Gordon replied. That’s thunderous praise from someone who has, over two decades, played for almost a dozen managers, including Joe Torre at the Yankees. “He’s that good.”

Strangely enough, it’s his plain speech that’s Manuel’s finest strength. “There’s enough pressure in the major leagues as it is. There’s enough pressure in Philadelphia as an athlete,” catcher Chris Coste told me. “He has that rare ability to take as much pressure off you as possible.” Manuel makes his guys laugh; he recently cut a commercial for the Phillies in which he stubs his “pinky toe” while berating players in the locker room. In February, during spring training, Manuel told pitcher Kyle Kendrick he’d been traded to a Japanese team, providing fudged paperwork to “prove” it. (Kendrick bought it.)

Manuel is more than just a locker-room jester, though. “He’s a good communicator,” Coste said.

I pictured Manuel, transfixed by flashbulbs. “People are going to laugh when they read that,” I said.

Coste’s eyes narrowed. “He’s a good communicator with us.”

I remembered Manuel’s savant-like lucidity when he gave me a batting lesson: 60/40 balance to the rear, hands above the ball, find your shortest distance to the ball. But that wasn’t Coste’s point. He meant that Manuel tells the truth, and sticks to the essence: When a player performs ­poorly, Manuel tells him so. When someone performs well, likewise. His straightforward manner, regardless of stuttering or grammatical errors, stops the churn of guesswork in a player’s head. All those distractions go out — out into the black void — and all that remains is the game itself.

In his day, Bowa tried to reach that baseball Zen — literally. He took up transcendental meditation, striving for “­enlightenment.” And the meditation would help — until a batter made a crucial strikeout, or an outfielder fumbled a catch. Then Bowa would detonate again. Poses and mantras couldn’t change Bowa because calmness wasn’t in him. He couldn’t graft inorganic placidity onto his nature.

As a young man, Manuel was like that, too — quick fists and a loud mouth, a ­brawler from the backwoods of western Virginia. That wasn’t his true nature, though. It would take a strange interlude halfway around the world to bring out the natural Zen of Charlie. First, however, he had to get out of Virginia.

LONG DAY, HIS grandfather would say, stepping into the house. Long day, so I’m goin’ back to my room. No visitors.

Then the familiar rhythm: clump, clump, clackack: boot, boot, door. The old man mined zinc and lead from the tilted earth of southwest Virginia, and he yielded more metal than conversation.

Charlie’s own father preached at the local Holiness Church. It’s a strict denomination that adheres to a rigid fundamentalist code, and the father believed in a lot of things. He disbelieved in many more, like sports. A waste of time, he said.

So after some number of minutes had passed, Charlie — who was just a boy — would rise and enter the grandfather’s room. There the old man would be waiting, smiling. And together they would listen to baseball on the radio.

Charlie Manuel and his grandfather, sitting on the edge of a bed in the Virginia hills, listening to baseball on the radio in the middle of the 20th century: They cut across space and time. Everything beyond the bedroom door fell away into the void of nonexistence — Charlie’s father’s opinions, especially — as they listened to Dizzy Dean drawl out the games. They ran the first-base line with young Mickey Mantle. Touched home plate with elegant Ted Williams, and tiny Yogi Berra. And stood with that fellow Jackie Robinson, as he ignored calls of “nigger” from the dugout of the hate-able Philadelphia Phillies.

Nothing else mattered, because nothing else was. Baseball was the center of everything for Charlie — not only his escape, but his hope.

Charlie’s father would never consent to a bat and ball, so the boy found rocks in the fields near his home, and practiced hitting them with a stick. The Dodgers are down by three in the bottom of the ninth, Dizzy might announce to the trees and hills. And here comes Manuel to the plate. He’s in fine form today. The toss: a rock hanging in the air: the crack of wood on stone.

Charlie’s grandfather took him to the mining company’s store, where the employees spent their paychecks each Saturday. There was a black man there — a barber, remarkably, at the time — who started a county baseball league. At 11, Charlie joined a team, scrambling to play with grown men. And then, in seventh grade, where sport wasn’t a waste of time, Charlie joined another team, and then he was on his way — a power hitter, sending the cowhide rocks great distances, signed by the Minnesota Twins organization as an outfielder in 1963, right out of high school.

Manuel was a mustang of a young man, untamed, easily inflamed. He tended to fight, on and off the field. But he did hit well. So well that he made the Twins’ big-league team in 1969. That first year in the big time, though, an awkward slide into second base shattered his left ankle.  

Manuel’s hobbled major-league career never quite stood up again. Finally, in 1976, he joined a new team, a team that wanted him around: the Yakult Swallows.

In Japan.

His airplane touched down first in Tokyo, where he stepped out to find a sea of Japanese fans and photographers. His handlers swept him into a hall where more people awaited the promised American, and he was  presented with his new uniform.

Manuel was petrified. For all his swagger and spit — he still loved to fight, ­wherever — he felt lost in Japan. In Japan, the final aim in Taoist philosophy is emptiness, the state of “no mind,” where thoughts only distract. This may explain baseball’s popularity there; it’s a game of stillness and quiet, until the singular moment when a batter swings at a ball. Deliberation and doubt only get in the way. There is no room for self-regard.

Manuel’s first day on the island changed the way he saw the game, forever:

The night he arrived, he lay down about 3 a.m., on a bed made from cinder blocks and plywood. At 5:30, someone shook him: Wake. Time to walk.

Manuel staggered up and joined the other Swallows, who pulled on matching jumpsuits and walked for an hour, then did formation exercises, then enjoyed a breakfast of noodles, rice, and a warm, uncooked egg in its shell.

Then the team rode in a bus up a mountainside. Near the top, they disembarked and stood facing 169 steps. The Japanese players sprinted toward the top. Manuel huffed his way up 39 steps before he had to walk. At the top of the mountain, the team assembled for formation jogging. They practiced hitting, and Manuel hit the ball twice as far as the Japanese, pounding it clear off the mountaintop and into a forest. But then they formed up for more synchronized running, and he suffered.

At the end of the day, Manuel collapsed on his block-and-board bed, still wearing his clothes, more sore than he’d been in his life. He began to hatch a plan to escape from Japan, but realized he didn’t even know where he was. And he couldn’t move.

His translator — a Japanese man with the unexpected name of Luigi — entered his room. “You need to come take a bath,” Luigi said.

Manuel resisted, but Luigi explained: “This is for you. This is very special.”

Luigi and another player helped Manuel down some stairs, where he found a vast rippling bath with hot water pouring over a wall of rocks into a pool. The water steamed. Manuel felt too weak to protest, so he eased in, and the water seemed to boil the flesh off his bones. “Acchhhhhhh,” he cried, crawling into a corner of the bath to wait in solitude for a nude and water-logged death. After a while, exhaustion won its battle with pain, so Manuel laid his head back and closed his eyes. In his half-sleep, he heard distinctly feminine giggling. He lifted his head to see 40 or 50 naked Japanese women padding toward him.

Was this the “special” bath?

The women started playing with his reddish hair and muscular arms, laughing. Manuel lay there in a horror of paralysis, unable to lift even a hand. He thought, You’ve got to be kidding me.

And so life went in Japan: unendurable punishment followed by baffling exaltation. He gave in to it, partly because he had nowhere else to play baseball, partly because these Japanese clearly knew what they were doing. But it was more than that: Charlie was forced to stay focused, to move from moment to moment, because any intrusive thought — any self-regard — would have left him unbalanced. The Japanese taught Manuel a quiet sort of discipline, and he taught them to swing the bat like madmen. They taught him Japanese language — Manuel still speaks a little ­Japanese — and culture; he took his team to the Japanese World Series three times in six years, and smashed 189 home runs.

The Japanese surprised Manuel with what he calls, in his paradoxical way, “extraordinary common courtesy,” outside and inside their baseball stadiums. A manager there would never publicly berate a player, for instance. “Not only did I learn a lot about myself,” Manuel told me in spring training, “but I learned a lot about other people.” And this, a simple yet surprisingly elusive skill: “I became a better listener.”

Later, back in the United States, two dueling qualities — Manuel’s passion, and his self-command — served him well as a batting coach, the kind whose charges would gladly work themselves until their hands bled. Manuel himself worked through a heart attack, cancer, and quadruple bypass surgery; while with the Indians, he managed for a time with a colostomy bag tucked under his uniform.

The wobbling arc of Charlie Manuel’s career — from Virginia mine country, through adversity and injury, to the regimen of Japan — now gives him a peculiar view inside his ballplayer’s heads. He can offer them perspective and calm.

“Philadelphia is known to be a tough place,” Manuel says. “But it ain’t nothing like where I come from.”

BASEBALL IS A slow game. It takes on a luxurious, almost velveteen pace: a pitch, a swing. A little pause. Another pitch, but no swing. Maybe a chat on the pitcher’s mound. A moment for the fans to stand up and stretch. A little song. It’s also this:

“Charlie. Charlie.” Just his name. “Chaaarlieeeeee … ”

In March, the Phillies played the Yankees in spring training, and Manuel faced a number of Phillies fans who were still a little unsteady with their heckling material. They threw out weird stuff. Insults about his … weight, maybe?

“Yo Charlie! You want a hot dog?”

Manuel stood at the edge of the dugout, leaning on the fence with his forearms. Without moving any other part of his body, he chewed a wad of bubble gum in a slow rhythm, so otherwise unanimated that he looked for all the world as though he was working on a cud. Chew. Chew. Chew.

“Can I get you a HOT DOG, Charlie? A HOT DOG? CAN I GET YOU A FREAKIN’ HOT DOG?”

It’s something else a manager can do: Be a lightning rod. Take the abuse. Let it roll off you like, well, nothin’ much, because there’s a game on.

At mid-game, Tom Gordon came onto the mound for his first appearance of the season. Gordon is 40 years old, and each batter walked or hit given up seemed excruciating, because they weren’t just “pitches”; they were “how he pitches now” — that is, can he? And when things aren’t going well — and today, they weren’t, as Manuel kept chewing his gum — there’s no crueler game than baseball, because your failure unfolds at the game’s slow pace.

As a battered Gordon walked off the field and into the dugout, Manuel reached over and gave him an encouraging slap on the haunch. Gordon responded with a small, summarizing nod, as though they had just wrapped up a discussion in what pitcher Jamie Moyer calls “baseball language.”

In his office, after the 9-3 loss, Manuel shrugged off Gordon’s trouble on the mound. He wavered a hand at his temple to indicate a squirrelly mental state. “The first time out for pitchers is always a little strange,” he said. “And Tom always gets a slow start. It’s fine.”

That’s what the tap to the butt told ­Gordon: It’s fine. That’s what the nod from Gordon gave back: I know. Baseball, especially early, in spring training, is a slow accretion, physically and mentally. Failure is expected. Failure has to be accounted for. How would Bowa, as a manager, have handled that moment with Gordon? The safe bet says that at best, he would have ignored him: Pitchers. Their own breed. Let him figure it out. But how, exactly, would that help Tom Gordon throw the ball better?

MANUEL DID LOSE control that one time.

In April of last year — the abyss of the Phillies’ season, well before the late rise — Manuel met with the press after a humiliating 8-1 loss to the Mets. Radio talker Howard Eskin, who has led a years-long spitball campaign against Manuel, insinuated that the team was losing because he wasn’t hard enough on his players: Maybe Manuel didn’t care enough to get angry.

Sure, Larry Bowa never won a championship. But at least he cared enough to pitch a fit.

“Why don’t you drop by my office?” Manuel said. “I’ll be waitin’ on you.”

When Eskin followed him, Manuel heaped whole bucketfuls of anger on the radioman’s head. Eskin then made a circuit of media appearances to talk about Manuel and “his problem.”

Manuel’s problem, of course, was roundly misunderstood. Some people felt it was the manager’s temper. The New York Times thought he might be sensitive about his Southern accent. Eskin, predictably, felt it was about Eskin. The problem wasn’t any such thing. What had happened was that someone — anyone — had questioned the depth of Manuel’s devotion to baseball, the game he had seen as “the only thing in the world to do” since he was a kid.

During spring training, one of Manuel’s staff members told me, with affection, “Charlie has Forrest Gumped his way to the top. He’s met, like, six U.S. presidents. Traveled around the world. Managed major-league teams. Amazing.”

That’s not quite true. Happenstance didn’t carry Charlie Manuel to the top of a major-league baseball team. Even his knowledge — his unexpected articulation about the “balance, rhythm and technique” of hitting — didn’t carry him. Something else did.

Just before the Yankees game, I walked past their dugout and saw the stars there, lined up like broad-shouldered wax figures: Derek Jeter, Abreu, Rodriguez. And there, on a bench by himself, I saw a tiny, stooped figure. Yogi Berra.

In a quiet corner of the dugout, I asked Berra about Manuel’s management style, and he smiled. “His players like him,” he said, nodding. “He loves the game.”

That affection is important, he said. Could it be the key to a ballclub’s success? Berra nodded again. “Well,” he said with a grin. “Pitching helps you, too.”

Then I did something dumb: I asked Berra to sign a baseball for me. His face lit up, and he did so, in a cheerful blue ink. Then I turned to find a Yankees PR man staring at my ball. “I know you didn’t just ask him for an autograph,” he said, clearly angry. “I know you didn’t.”

“I did.”

After receiving a lecture about the players’ pre-game focus, press credentials and so forth, I was sent away. The sting of the encounter stayed with me throughout the game. Afterward, sitting in Manuel’s office, I blurted out, “I did something unprofessional, when I talked to Yogi Berra.”

He looked up from some paperwork. “What did you do?”

“I asked him to sign a ball.”

Manuel considered this a moment. “Of course you did,” he said. “It’s Yogi Berra.”

I realized then, with sudden clarity, that what sets Charlie Manuel apart from other managers — the quality that separates him from his predecessors — is humility. That’s when I could see what his six years in Japan had given him. His childhood, his injuries, his discipline in an environment so different from home, all conspired to make him a humble man. He lives in a state of “no mind,” seemingly without regard for himself at all.

It is this quality in Manuel — the fullness of his humility — that makes his team want to win for him. He is, as Yogi Berra once put it, an “overwhelming underdog.” Baseball, it turns out, is a very simple game when you’re in love with it.