- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Astute observer of the baseball universe that he is, Charlie Manuel has noticed something about leadership -- or the lack thereof.
From 2007 to 2011, when that Phillies team of his was averaging nearly 95 wins a year and outwinning every team in baseball not known as the Yankees, you never read “leadership void” and “Phillies” in the same sentence.
Funny thing about that.
But drop an unpleasant little 81-81 bomb on the franchise, and kaboom. Instant leadership void.
Funny thing about that too.
Whatever it was that Jonathan Papelbon saw last year that caused him to spew the other day, to the Allentown Morning Call, about the Phillies’ lack of leadership, what the manager saw was a team that was in disarray on the field, not off it.
And that, Manuel said Saturday, was his problem, not a problem his “leaders” didn’t step up to deal with.
“I’ve always said this,” Manuel said before his team’s spring training opener with the Houston Astros. “I think of myself as the manager, and I’m definitely the leader of our team. And I think there are two things that are being said here.
“I think one of them is in the clubhouse. Everybody’s always talking about how we have guys who are leaders, and when you’re winning, they get credit for being leaders. But I think our players have always looked to me when we’ve had a major problem. I think if it’s something small, they think they can handle it. But when it’s something big that needs to be taken care of, they definitely look to me to do that.”
And last year, he said, there were so many of those something big moments that “I had more meetings than I’ve ever had.”
“It wasn’t situations where I had to discipline people or anything like that,” Manuel said. “The situation last year was the way we were playing. When I say that, I saw times last year where we had trouble catching the ball. We had trouble with our knowledge of how to play the game, and I vented about that all summer.”
Now here’s another funny thing: From 2007 to 2009, when Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were averaging 152 games a year apiece, the manager never once found himself venting about their lack of “knowledge of how to play the game.”
But all of a sudden, in the middle of last season, Manuel gazed upon a field where the likes of Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez and Hector Luna were wearing his team’s uniform. Suddenly, in a related development, the view wasn’t so pretty.
So was that about who wasn’t leading? Or who wasn’t playing?
“Chase Utley wasn’t there,” Manuel said. “Ryan Howard wasn’t there. [Roy] Halladay was missing for a while.”
And it’s incredible, the manager observed, how much better those guys lead when they’re actually playing, as opposed to when they’re rehabbing in Arizona or Clearwater.
“I’ve said this many times,” Manuel said. “When Ryan Howard’s playing good and hitting the ball good, people look up to him. They get inspired by how he’s doing. Then he’s a leader.
“Chase Utley is not what you call real vocal, but he will grab you and talk to you. And also, the way he looks at you sometimes tells you whether he likes it or not. And when Rollins is playing good, Jimmy is definitely a leader.
"So I think we’ve got leaders on our team. But our problem was, [in the middle of last season], we weren’t as good as people thought we were or expected us to be.”
But the manager noticed something else: Once Howard, Utley and Halladay all got back on the field in July, even at less than full bore, the Phillies restarted their engines, going 39-27 the rest of the way, even though there wasn’t much to play for.
"Our team didn’t quit, and we could have quit,” Manuel said. “How we played those last two months kind of speaks for itself.”
But when it spoke, what was it saying? That’s the question. If they want to somehow conclude that’s what they really are -- that team that played so much better down the stretch -- they’re making a dangerous assumption.
Even though Utley started a spring training game Saturday for the first time since 2010 and Howard started one for the first time since 2011, the manager isn’t assuming anything. If the storm Papelbon stirred up this week causes his veterans to take their responsibilities as leaders more seriously, Manuel is all for that.
Which means the manager has no complaints that Saturday’s starting pitcher Cole Hamels volunteered afterward to take on more leadership duties.
“I’ve been here for a long time,” Hamels said. “And I’ve seen some really big-time leaders -- Pat [Burrell] leave, and [Jamie] Moyer leave, and we’ve also had Jayson Werth and Aaron Rowand leave. Those guys were big-time leaders. You can’t expect new guys to come in and lead a team. They have to feel it out.
“So last year, I agree with Pap. I wasn’t fulfilling my end of the bargain either. So we’re all guilty, and we all have to step up and take a role and a presence in this team and get back to what we know we’re capable of doing, which is winning.”
Hamels isn’t the only veteran in that clubhouse the manager would like to see do more to lead the troops. Manuel said Saturday that he approached Papelbon about it a week or so ago.
Last year, Manuel said, he got the feeling his new closer “wanted to say something [but] he thought it was his first year over here, and it was hard for him to say things.”
And so, the manager went on, “I talked to him about being more vocal and being more of a leader. And really, I see where he could definitely help us in that role. With all the young guys in our bullpen, why can’t he?”
He also is well aware that he has another guy on his roster this spring who can supply some of that leadership he’s looking for. That would be Michael Young, a monstrous clubhouse presence in Texas who is still easing his way into the Phillies’ mix after 13 seasons with the Rangers.
Manuel said he hadn’t spoken to Young about any of this, “but I will.” Young is “a pro, and he fits on our team,” Manuel said. “At the same time, he’s got to go through spring training and get to know our players, and they’ve got to get to know him. I think that’s something he’ll work into.”
But now that we’ve got all that out of the way, does anyone really believe that the fate of this aging team’s season is about leadership? Really?
It’s about talent, friends. And depth. And health. And you can write that down.
It’s about the ability of Howard, Utley and Halladay to rediscover their former selves.
It’s about the ability of the manager and his front office to piece together an outfield that will provide an acceptable level of production and defense in the corners.
It’s about a reconstructed bullpen’s ability to stop the final three innings of every game from being the disaster area they were last year.
That is what good teams do. What winning teams do. And when they do, that leadership-void talk seems to disappear faster than you can say, “Whatever happened to Hector Luna?”
Funny thing about that too.