Gone too soon?

by Clark Groome

Reactions to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel’s firing last Friday have been all over the map.

Some have been angry. Others have been sad. Some have been surprised. Some have said they fired the wrong guy, that General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is the guy who should have been axed. Some believe it was just the right thing to do.

While I understand all of those reactions – and share them in varying degrees at varying times – what I feel most is disappointment, not with the decision but with the timing.

While there is no question that managers and head coaches arrive for duty with an expiration date, the way they leave their role should be tailored to the way in which they did their jobs.

What is clear in the Manuel situation is that his eight years and eight months as the Phillies’ skipper were the most successful in franchise history.

The winningest Phillies manager (780-637), he led a perennial also-ran to five straight National League East championships (2007-2011), two National League Pennants (2008, 2009) and the World Series victory in 2008, only the second in the Phillies 130-year existence.

His time as manager covered what may be the team’s strongest era. The only other period that comes close is the period from 1975 to 1983. The Phils reached the playoffs six times in that period, went to two World Series (1980, 1983) and won only the 1980 Fall Classic. Who was the manager during that period? There wasn’t just one manager, there were four: Danny Ozark, Dallas Green, Pat Corrales and Paul Owens.

Manuel accomplished alone what it took four guys to do 30-plus years ago. He did it with considerably less drama and controversy.

In spite of getting off to a rocky start – primarily because of his somewhat original way of dealing with the English language (not all that dissimilar to Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, two other beloved managers of some renown) – Manuel’s tenure made it clear that he was passionate about baseball, was a brilliant manager of people, was as knowledgeable a baseball man as any organization could want, never publicly criticized his players (except, perhaps, for one rather infamous encounter with pitcher Brett Myers in the dugout), and remained loyal to and supportive of his players even when they were having a tough time.

The Manuel era, for all that, was clearly coming to an end. Ultimately the team needs to move into a new era. It was likely, many felt, that Ryne Sandberg would be his successor. It all made perfect sense: the 69-year old Manuel would step down when his contract ended after this season and Sandberg would take up the reins.

And then they fired him with 42 games to go.

Their rationale was that they shouldn’t leave him hanging out there as a lame duck after they told him he wouldn’t be renewed. They also wanted to see if Sandberg could re-energize a clearly floundering group a bit before the season ended.

Baseball is a business. The team has to make decisions that will allow it to earn the money it needs to field a squad that will win. Losers don’t draw fans.

Under almost all similar situations I would have applauded the decision to cut ties with the manager and move on to the next chapter.

But this man, and what he brought to the organization, to his players, to the fans and to the city, is special.

This was Charlie, as decent a human being as ever led a major league sports team while at the same time being eminently successful. His last victory was career win number 1,000. Only 58 other managers out of the eight hundred and some who have held that post in the history of the Major Leagues have won 1,000 games.

Charlie deserved to finish out his time on the bench with dignity and to retire after appropriate acknowledgement of what he brought to the Phils and Philadelphia. But that wasn’t to be.

What’s so disappointing is that the Philadelphia Phillies is known to be a class operation, one that is loyal to its employees and respected around baseball. This time they blew it.

The solution might have been to name Sandberg the bench coach and have him do much of what he will now do as interim manager, letting Manuel save face and even help the new guy get ready for leading the team.

Maybe that wouldn’t work. But there could have been, should have been, something that would have made Manuel’s departure a celebration of who he is and what he’s accomplished rather than the unpleasant shock it was.

Maybe the firing will turn out to be the right business and baseball move.

But if this was such a good move then why are so many people angry and sad? Because Manuel deserved better. He’d earned it.

Charlie Manuel leaves with his reputation and popularity intact. The Phillies can’t make the same claim.

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