September 24, 2013

We love you, Charlie Manuel.

Charlie ManuelThe photograph on the right adorns the otherwise relatively bare walls of my Washington, DC apartment. It's of a 64-year-old man -- currently aged 69 -- on the happiest day in recent Philadelphia sports history, and the second happiest day of my life. It cost me $4 on eBay. I wouldn't sell it for the world.

Charlie Manuel stepped down as Phillies manager back on Friday, August 16. He went 780-636 in Philadelphia, winning one World Series and retiring as the most successful skipper in the team's history.

He was not a master strategist. His teams often won in spite of his tactical decisions; starters were left in too long, massive platoon splits were ignored in favor of "riding the hot hand" or "trusting his guys."

His final squad, the 2013 Phillies, proved to be painfully flawed. But they weren't helped along by Charlie's unwavering faith in broken players like Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard. He stuck with them through thick and thin, despite overwhelming evidence that they were nothing but shells of their former selves.

But he was never the man to invigorate a struggling franchise. He was a committed, supportive manager who believed in his boys and loved hitting. Give him a bushel of power bats and some decent starters and he'll whip them into a contender that you could never quite count out.

And the World Series champions of 2008 were exactly that. Charlie didn't have the bushel of aces that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would acquire in later years, but he did have one (Cole Hamels) who never lost and three other starters (Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton) who provided consistent quality starts.

And then, perhaps, most importantly, he had JC Romero for the seventh, Ryan Madson for the eighth and Brad Lidge for the ninth. Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin could pop in for some mop-up innings or face a tough righty early on, but otherwise the bullpen was set it and forget it. And that's just the way Charlie liked it.

The offense was even better. Chase Utley (.915 OPS) was a superstar, and Ryan Howard (.881 OPS) wasn't far behind. Pat Burrell (.875 OPS) more than held down left field for the last time; once Jayson Werth (.861 OPS) took over in right field around August, all tinkering was officially over.

Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Werth, Feliz, Ruiz.

According to Baseball Reference, they only lined up 10 times in that order throughout 2008's 162-game regular season. But they were all set by October, when it really counted.

Everyone remembers what happened next. Brett Myers drawing his world-famous walk off CC Sabathia. Shane Victorino's subsequent grand slam. Matt Stairs rips one deep into the night. Joe Blanton's homer, Geoff Jenkins' "leadoff" double, Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske and hugging Carlos Ruiz from his knees.

It was amazing. I laughed, I cried, I hugged everyone in sight for weeks. And we owe so much of that pure unadulterated joy to Charlie Manuel.

Maybe another manager could've led that same team to victory. But we were stuck with Charlie, which seemed like a mess in the early going but turned into magic before long. He was folksy, he was charming, he was smarter than he looked (and sounded). He was unique, and while we didn't appreciate him right away he soon found a path into our hearts.

I wrote this because I wanted to say goodbye to Charlie in my own way. The Phillies have become mostly unwatchable at this point, and I blame Manuel for very little of it. He was a man out of time, plugging holes with mediocre minor leaguers when he used to slot in potential All-Stars. At age 69, with Ryne Sandberg waiting in the wings, it was time to say goodbye.

But that didn't make it any easier. The state of despair when Charlie took over, and the state of bliss that held for most of his tenure, couldn't be more apples and oranges. The Phillies used to be the laughingstock of baseball; they were slightly above middling in the early 2000s. Then they found a manager who helped change all that, a captain who steered the ship to glory.

Charlie Manuel was that captain, and I'll never forget what he brought to the city of Philadelphia and its fans. We'll always love you, Charlie.

September 10, 2013

Once you pop.

Football sucked.

Twenty-three months ago, I admitted to the world that I preferred NFL RedZone to the Philadelphia Eagles. I was pilloried by many, Philly fans and general football enthusiasts alike.

Twelve months ago, I decided to throw my faith behind Andy Reid one more time. This was a mistake. A big mistake. But at least I was no longer alone in my disgust.

The once-proud Eagles franchise had sunk to the bottom of the National Football League. There were expected to be few survivors.

So we said goodbye to Andy, and we hoped it would get better before it got worse. Despite knowing full well that, even in today's wacky NFL, that's not usually how it goes.

There's always a team that moves from the rubble to the Ritz. But it's not usually one that blew an entire draft, that spent millions on an untested college coach, that barely improved their defensive backfield, that brought back an oft-injured veteran and moderately successful third-round pick to compete for the most important job in an extremely complicated offense.

Well, the Eagles still aren't ready to take up residence in any fancy penthouse. Their ceiling is probably 9-7, and that's with a lot going right (and a hearty handful of important players staying healthy).

But, wow. Last night was something else. I forgot you were allowed to have fun while watching your hometown team play football. Encouraged to, even.

I walked to my friend's house in my stylish Eagles-themed Hawaiian-style blouse (purchased from the wrong section, obviously, during an ill-fated Kohl's trip), embracing the occasional stare from fellow DC residents in RG3 jerseys. Not feeling confident in the least; just filled with the promise of a new season.

"At least it'll be different," I thought. Not necessarily better, but unlike what we'd been slogging through for the last few years. That would be progress.

But I flew home on a cloud (albeit a bit more modestly, being that it was relatively late and the local team had just lost) because I'd just seen the most exciting first half of Philadelphia football since Donovan McNabb was rewarded for his contract extension with 59 Michael Vick points in his face.

It was everything you hoped it would be. It got the entire football-loving nation buzzing. And, even though the more rational among us realize that this year's team is still fatally flawed, it brought back hope that maybe the Eagles were once again ahead of the curve.

Granted, the second half was considerably rockier. The defense is still largely unproven (at best). And there are certainly questions about how long the Chipper's boys can keep up a record-setting pace on offense.

But there was Chip Kelly in his sexy visor, using ridiculous Philadelphia-themed flash cards to call plays, running his boys out there like a well-oiled machine, making everyone believe again.

And with San Diego coming to town on Sunday, they of the massive Monday night meltdown, 2-0 is not out of the question.

Most people -- present company included -- would've been happy with 7-9. Now we can dream a little bigger. But, like a starving man who's handed a bowl of soup, we're not going to slam the bowl down and demand more.

That kind of greed comes later. For now, a nice hearty gulp will do.