Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
About an hour and a half after the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, and with every last bit of champagne and beer either spilled or consumed, just about all that remained in a dry state around the Phillies' clubhouse was their manager, Charlie Manuel. I was stunned when I saw Manuel, still in uniform, still dry, in a hallway between his office and the clubhouse. Then it made sense to me. It never was about the glory or the adulation for Charles Fuqua Manuel. It was always simply about the baseball.
"I'm a baseball guy," Manuel told a skeptical Philadelphia media corps upon being introduced as the Phillies manager in November of 2004. "I live and sleep baseball."
Seeing Manuel quietly celebrate only the second world championship in franchise history, I immediately wondered, How many thousands of Charlie Manuels are out there? How many men give their lives to baseball out of love, not glory? How many of them devote the best years of their lives out of the camera's range, teaching the game while always wanting to learn more about it themselves? Manuel was lucky enough to get the winning lottery ticket -- a World Series trophy -- but he was still just another baseball guy, not very different from the scout squeezing another 50,000 miles out of his beater car, the minor league coach throwing another 400-pitch batting practice in the brutal midsummer heat in Florida or even the high school coach missing another dinner at home to work just a little longer with his kids. Such men are the backbone of the game.
Charlie Manuel never won a gold medal or a manager of the year award. Never has he been called a "genius" or an "innovator." Corporate America would not prefer his kind of elocution for motivational speeches. (When asked about his famous run-in with a Philadelphia radio host, Manuel said, "I don't want to hash it.") There is nothing fancy about the guy. And that is why Manuel is my choice for Sportsman of the Year. He is a proxy for all those baseball lifers who love what they do. He also is proof that success does not require a good and honest man to change.
Manuel's story is remarkably without ego or privilege. In the western Virginia hills Manuel grew up poor and he grew up fast, especially from that day his father, Charles Sr., left a suicide note to the teenage "Fook," as his mother called him, to take care of his mama and his 10 siblings. Charlie did so by forsaking a possible college basketball scholarship to take a $20,000 bonus from the Minnesota Twins. Manuel hit .198 in 242 major league games before leaving for a prolific playing career in Japan. When Manuel, upon being hired by the Phillies to manage, was asked in a questionnaire to identify his funniest baseball moment, he replied, "My entire career as a player in the states."
At age 38 Manuel, then finished as player, was sitting at home one week before the 1982 spring training camps were to open. He was unsure about what he might do next. George Brophy of the Twins called to offer him a job as a scout and roving hitting instructor. Said Manuel, "He told me, 'I'm calling you because I know how much you love baseball, and I know how honest you are and I love your determination."'
For the next 18 years Manuel plugged away as a minor league coach, minor-league manager (for 1,198 games) and major league hitting coach before all those dues earned him a big league managing job, with the Indians. He was fired in his third year and landed an advisory job with the Phillies before getting a second crack at managing.
The Charlie Manuel that won the World Series was the same Charlie Manuel who, while coaching at Wisconsin Rapids in the bush leagues, took so much batting practice that visiting teams filed scouting reports on him. There was, however, one difference: Manuel won the World Series without his mama. June Manuel, whom he called twice a week and who lived in the same house that Charlie helped finance with his bonus money, died during the NLCS at the age of 87. Charlie buried her with a Phillies cap placed in her casket. When Charlie's team did win it all, he imagined her full of laughter and joy at her son winning the title.
In the clinching game, good ole Charlie from Buena Vista, Va., outflanked his opposing manager, Joe Maddon, a statistical whiz, oenephile and renaissance man who quotes Camus. It was not, however, a personal triumph for Manuel. It was a triumph for every guy like Manuel who needs the dirt and grass underneath his feet while held in the gravitational pull of that five-ounce ball.
"I wasn't working on trying to prove nothing," ole Charlie said. "Don't take this in a cocky way. I already knew how good I was."