Almost Writing Off Charlie Manuel Is the Real Philly Sports Fan Shame

Sure, four aces are great. But who doesn't love King Charlie now?

Phillies baseball is back, and I can’t wait to wash away the foul taste of that third-strike-looking end to last season. Cliff Lee’s return helped, but all the Four Aces talk aside, this has been a rough spring. Chase Utley’s knee. Brad Lidge’s shoulder. Domonic Brown’s hand. Placido Polanco’s elbow. In a few short weeks, the clubhouse has turned into a triage unit. Maybe the only thing that’s played out in the team’s favor is something they could control—extending Charlie Manuel’s contract through 2012.

In the days leading up to the manager’s new deal, sports talk radio was flooded with callers who were worried that the contract situation was wearing on their beloved skipper. Charlie—or Cholly, depending on the caller—deserved better, they said. When the Phillies finally ponied up, you could hear the collective sigh of relief. Of course, leave it up to a certain bearded, bloviating radio host to take the contrarian position that managers in baseball don’t really matter, so all the Charlie chatter was much ado about nothing. To this day, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone—caller, host, journalist or fan—agree with that royally absurd opinion.

[SIGNUP]What surprised me was the passion of the fans who came to Charlie’s defense, first to encourage the Phillies to show him the money, then to insist that Charlie does matter and that we likely wouldn’t have partied on Broad Street in 2008 without him. I agree that managers in baseball don’t have the same impact as coaches in other sports (take a look at what Doug Collins, a.k.a. The Miracle Worker, is doing with the Sixers). But as Phillies president Dave Montgomery pointed out, you never hear about divisions within the clubhouse, or players checking out mentally midway through these long seasons that grind into October. That’s just as important as knowing when to pull your starter or calling for a bunt, and that cohesion says a lot about what makes Charlie special.

It wasn’t all that long ago that most fans, if they’re being honest with themselves, weren’t so high on their team’s manager. Back in 2004, everyone was salivating over Jim Leyland as Larry Bowa’s successor. Leyland took the Detroit Tigers to the World Series two years later, while the Phillies, under Charlie, still hadn’t reached the postseason. He was just a broken-down spare part in the Jim Thome deal, many thought. And then there was his image as the country bumpkin, the soft-bellied Southerner whose press conferences were like five-car pile-ups of mangled speech. Charlie was ridiculed in the media, on the radio and in the stands. We mocked him for more than his win-loss record; like schoolyard bullies, we took cheap shots at the way he spoke.

When the national media calls us the worst fans in the nation, they always mention the clichés—snowballs at Santa, batteries at JD Drew—but they miss the ones that really hit home. Our rap on Charlie was partly due to our impatience with the team’s early struggles under his watch. But we were also guilty of writing him off early in the worst way—as an incompetent hick, largely because he didn’t sound like us (which is especially ironic, since many folks around here don’t speak the King’s English, either).

That’s why our relationship with him runs deeper than just the championship he brought us. That’s why he’s like Bono in this town—no last name necessary, just Charlie. We love that he was tough enough to put up with our jabs and our ignorance in those early years, when the line between criticism and cruelty sometimes blurred, and he never once threw us under the bus. Now every time we say Charlie’s our man, we’re also saying, “Hey, skip. We’re sorry.” And now, the only debate worth discussing isn’t whether he’s the right guy for the job. It’s Charlie Manuel: best Phillies manager ever?