CLEVELAND: Northeast Ohioans thought Charlie Manuel was a country bumpkin, a good ol’ boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains. His West Virginia twang made for good impersonations; his unassuming nature made him seem like a pushover.
They thought the man who managed the Indians from 2000 to mid-2002 was all corn-pone fluff with no substance.
Those people never sat down and talked baseball and listened to his tales from playing in Japan as I did one evening at the Renaissance hotel, one of the most enjoyable nights of my career.
They never saw the loyalty the former Tribe hitting coach still inspires in his players.
Manuel said ex-Indians slugger Jim Thome called about two weeks ago and asked, “ ‘Chuck, do you mind if I come and hang out with you?’ Manuel said he told the unsigned free agent, ‘No, you can come live with me.’ ”
During his 51 years in professional baseball, Manuel never seemed to mind that he was underestimated, both for his people skills and his baseball knowledge. He might have slipped only once, after he managed the Philadelphia Phillies to the 2008 World Championship. That night he spied the Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes among the press corps and said, “Tell them in Cleveland, we just won a World Series.”
As he brought the Phillies to Progressive Field for a two-game series against the Indians that began Tuesday night, Manuel might be about to get underestimated again.
He turned 69 in January and is in the final year of his contract. Philadelphia went 81-81 last season and finished third in the National League East. There has been speculation that hall of famer Ryne Sandberg, 53, in his first season as third-base coach, could succeed Manuel.
Manuel still lives in Winter Haven, Fla., where the Indians held spring training from 1993-2008 and his fiancée Melissa Martin is from. He remodeled their home two years ago. He boasts that the town now has Chick-fil-A, Panera, Five Guys, Honey Baked Ham and Starbucks. He can see himself running a hitting school in retirement.
But he is by no means ready. And he won’t go in the same manner as he did the first time.
“I want to manage as long as I can. I never told nobody I was going to retire. We’ll see,” Mauel said in the Phillies’ dugout before the game.
Asked how he was handling the contract situation with the team 12-14 before Tuesday’s loss to the Tribe, Manuel said: “That’s no problem. In spring training I told the guys I didn’t want to talk about it no more. Just go out and do my job and not get caught up in it. I’m not worried about nothing.”
That wasn’t the case during his tenure as Indians manager, when worrying too much got him fired.
Winning 181 games and finishing second and first in the division in his first two seasons, Manuel wanted to know if then-general manager Mark Shapiro was bringing him back in 2003. He asked Shapiro at the All-Star break. The Tribe was 39-47, and Shapiro wasn’t ready to give Manuel an answer. Manuel’s persistence prompted Shapiro to let him go.
Manuel had the chance to tell the Indians on Tuesday that he’d proved there was something behind that aw-shucks façade. In his ninth year with the Phillies, he is back as the franchise leader in victories with 739. Gene Mauch (645) is a distant second. Dallas Green, the only other manager to win the World Series, didn’t last long enough to make the top 10.
Manuel has joined the short list of those who were fired in Cleveland and went on to win it all, along with Bill Belichick (New England Patriots, 2001-03-04), Bill Fitch (Boston Celtics, 1981) and Chuck Daly (Detroit Pistons, 1989, 90).
But Manuel resisted the chance to say ‘I told you so.’
“When I left Cleveland everything was changing. We were changing our team, we were changing ownership,” he said. “I think I probably got caught up in that.”
Arriving here on an off-day Monday, Manuel walked around the city he’s always liked. He said he lost $100 at the Horseshoe Casino, and it could have been more.
“I got lucky for a little while,” he said.
Actually, he got lucky for a long while. Manuel realizes he’s always been around great talent, including the ’95, ’96 and ’97 Indians, which he said were capable of winning the world championship.
“I say this every day, the more I’m around the game, people don’t even see how much luck’s involved,” Manuel said. “To get to a World Series is big, but to win it is even harder.”
Perhaps that prompted Manuel’s message to Cleveland after he did, even though it still seems out of character.
“To me I’ve never had to have attention,” he said. “The game gave me my attention.”
In Northeast Ohio, Manuel was almost regarded as a cartoon character, never fully embraced by the fans or the front office. So he relished his own little moment Tuesday morning while standing in line at the Marriott Starbucks.
“This lady hollered back and asked me what I wanted,” Manuel said. “I said I wanted a medium black coffee and she said, ‘What’s your name?’ Some people turned around and told her my name. That kinda felt good.”
Save for his post-World Series shout-out, that seems as close as Manuel will ever come to gloating.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.