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.

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