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Friday, October 10, 2008
Life and baseball collide for Manuel in Philly

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- A baseball is round. A circle is round. But as Charlie Manuel proved Friday, on a bittersweet afternoon turned evening, it isn't always easy for that baseball to fit inside the circle of life.

Charlie Manuel has managed 1,072 games in the big leagues. But he had never managed a game like this one.

It was one of the most satisfying games of his managerial career. It was also the saddest.

It was the day his Phillies fought to within two wins of the World Series with a raucous 8-5 victory over the Dodgers, a win that gave them a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. But that was just the part of this day that revolved around baseball.

It was Manuel's other journey Friday, his journey along that circle of life, that made a mere postseason baseball game feel almost insignificant.

It was the day the manager came to the ballpark knowing this was one day that wouldn't end with the favorite postgame ritual of his managerial life -- that daily phone call from June Manuel, the mother who raised him, loved him and affectionately picked apart every game he ever managed.

June Manuel was rushed to a Virginia hospital Tuesday. She passed away early Friday morning. So for the better part of this week, the manager has been a jumble of swirling emotions. How could he not be?

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Yet he told almost no one around him. In the most important week of his managerial career, he made one of life's most difficult choices.

He didn't merely decide to stay with his team. He decided to do everything he could to make sure the story of the week was his team.

"I had no idea what he was going through until today," Phillies third baseman Greg Dobbs said after his team's sixth win in seven postseason games this October. "But that's Charlie. He didn't want to burden this team with what he was going through personally. He's done a very good job of masking his thoughts around us."

But on this day, that was no longer possible. His first-base coach, Davey Lopes, floated through the clubhouse before Friday's game, letting players know why their manager might not be his usual garrulous self.

His players, in turn, let the manager know this would be no ordinary day for them, either. This one wasn't for themselves. It was for June Manuel and the son who has helped bond this group into one of the closest teams in sports.

"I told him right before we went out there, 'I'm going to win this one for your mom,'" said the starting pitcher, Brett Myers.

And even as this game rolled along, enveloping Myers in a bunch of wild and wacky plot lines -- a three-hit day at the plate, a mildly sprained ankle on one of his two harrowing trips around the bases, an 8-2 lead almost returned to sender -- the man on the mound couldn't get the man in the dugout out of his mind.

Brett Myers
Brett Myers told Charlie Manuel during Friday's game that he wanted to win it for Manuel's mother, who died Friday morning. Myers went out and got three hits and drove home three runs in the 8-5 win.
"I even told him after the third inning," Myers said. "I went up and gave him a hug and said, 'I love you, man,' because I was thinking about his mom. I was thinking about what a good person he is for this team."

That would have been a powerful moment had it been anyone on the roster. But it was especially meaningful that this was Brett Myers going out of his way to envelop his manager with compassion.

It was only a couple of months ago, you may recall, that Myers and Manuel had a public shouting match, right there in this very dugout, with the TV cameras rolling and thousands of witnesses watching it all unfold.

If that had been another manager, their YouTube moment might have built an impenetrable wall between them, even spiraled into a one-of-these-men-must-go soap opera. But Manuel has a way of rising above that sort of pettiness.

He's a man with an innate understanding of the emotions that drive baseball players to the pinnacle of irrationality -- and a man with the ability to distinguish what matters from what doesn't.

"Charlie's a guy who's always there for you," Myers said. "That's what he does. He's not a different guy the next day if you pitch bad. He's still there for you. …

"I think we know each other's personalities. And I think that's one thing that he has in his corner. He knows everybody's personality in here. He knows how to handle every one of us. And that's what makes him so good with me, because he knows that if I blow up at something, it's just because I was in the moment and I'm a competitor. He knows all that. And that's why it was so easy to get over whatever spat we had."

If this had been a normal day at the ballpark -- assuming there's any such thing in October -- it would have been Myers, not his manager, who was the No. 1 topic of conversation. In the annals of madcap days by starting pitchers in postseason history, Myers' day has to rank right near the top of the list.

He planted one first-inning fastball under Manny Ramirez's armpits. He launched another 94-mile-an-hour smokeball behind Ramirez's dreadlocks. Then, on the heels of his mind-warping 19-pitches-in-two-duels-with-CC-Sabathia day at the plate in the NLDS, Myers followed up that act by becoming the first pitcher since 1919 to have a three-hit, three-RBI game on any grand October stage.

Just for perspective's sake, we're talking about a fellow who hadn't previously been confused with Ty Cobb. Myers went a spectacular 4-for-58 at the plate this season, with one RBI. So now here he is in October, 4-for-5 with three RBIs. What the heck is up with that?

OK, here's what: Afterward, his hitting coach, Milt Thompson made the mistake of mentioning that Myers has spread out at the plate like (gasp) Albert Pujols: "Look, he'll never be Albert Pujols," Thompson said. "But he's put himself in better position up there."

Joe Torre and Charlie Manuel
Charlie Manuel kept the news that his mother had been in the hospital since Tuesday to himself all week. When others, like Joe Torre, found out Manuel's mother had died Friday morning, they stopped to pass along condolences before Game 2.
Naturally, it didn't take long for word to reach Myers that his hitting coach had just dropped his name and Pujols' name in the same sentence. Myers nodded approvingly, as if he were shocked that it had taken this long for the world to catch on to their many similarities.

"That's 100 percent right," Myers deadpanned. "I'm a deep threat, you know. I can bloop one over second base."

"You think Albert has patterned himself after you?" someone asked.

"If anyone patterns themselves after the way I hit," Myers retorted, "they need to just not play anymore."

So stay tuned for Pujols' retirement announcement any minute now. But in the meantime, once Myers had finished making two zany treks around the bases and the Phillies had finished reeling off consecutive four-run innings, this was an 8-2 game after only three innings. And Citizens Bank Park was reverberating with breathless chants of "Beat L.A."

But just minutes later, it was reverberating from a different sort of shock wave -- the shock of seeing Ramirez mash a three-run home run into the petunia garden in left, turning a blowout into an 8-5 this-is-life-in-Philly special.

And that brings us to the other character in this circle-of-life production -- center fielder Shane Victorino.

Victorino played this game not knowing that death also had interjected itself into his life. On a day when his 82-year-old grandmother, Irene Victorino, died, Victorino singled in two runs in the second inning, tripled in two more in the third, then hauled out his most special moment of the day when his team needed it most.

With two outs in the seventh and the tying run at the plate, Victorino splattered himself against the wall in deep left-center to rob Casey Blake of at least a double, keep at least two runs off the board and save millions of Philadelphians from stampeding straight to their favorite cardiologists.

"A game-changing catch," teammate Jayson Werth called it. It was only later, after Brad Lidge had whiffed Matt Kemp and Nomar Garciaparra with two on in the ninth to end this epic, that Victorino's father headed for the clubhouse to tell him the sad news.

"I told my dad I'm going home for my grandma's funeral [in Hawaii]," Victorino said afterward, his eyes still red with grief. "I hope they can schedule it on an off day, maybe. But right now, I want to be with this team because that's my job, and it's important. I'm sure Charlie feels the same way. He wants to be there for his family. But he also wants to be there with this team."

However Manuel was feeling Friday, though, he left those feelings unspoken. He didn't address the media. He was unusually quiet all day in the dugout.

"At one point, around the fifth inning, I looked over and he was just pacing in the dugout," Dobbs said. "And I thought to myself, 'I can't imagine what he's going through.' His mother just passed away. You've got 40,000 fans screaming their lungs out. And we're playing, at the time, the most important game of our season. And he's managing that game. I found myself trying to empathize, trying to put myself in his shoes. It had to be very difficult."

But the day kept reeling forward. And then there was Lidge finishing off his 45th consecutive save, giving his team that two-zilch lead, elevating the Phillies to a place from which only three teams in LCS history have failed to reach the World Series -- up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series. And fireworks popped overhead.

A dugout full of Phillies raced out to the field to celebrate. But for nearly a minute afterward, their manager didn't follow them.

Finally, Manuel hopped up those dugout steps and began shaking hands. Only when he was finished, when he had pumped every fist, did he turn and find Thompson there waiting for him. The hitting coach slipped his arm over his boss' shoulder. Then they headed for the clubhouse together.

"He's an incredible man," Thompson would say later of his manager and friend. "It was just one of those moments where I was letting him know he'd made it through a tough day, but it's going to get better. It's rough right now. But it's going to get better."

In any other line of work when moments like this strike, you can stop the world, take a leave from your job, do what matters most for the family members around you. But not in this business.

In this business, October stops for no one. Life goes on. Baseball goes on.

So Manuel will go on. He went on to the airplane to California. He'll go on to Game 3 and beyond. Someday, when the time is right and the schedule allows, he'll make it back to Virginia and mourn the way he needs to mourn. But for now, there's no time for that. He knows it. And his baseball team understands it.

"There's only so much sports can do to ease the pain," Myers said. "But I hope we can help ease it -- especially the guys in this clubhouse. We're all behind Charlie just as much as he's behind us. If he needs any of us for anything, we're there for him."

What he needed Friday -- what they all needed -- was the victory that propelled them closer to the sixth World Series appointment in franchise history. But this time, that victory was about more than just baseball.

They found themselves playing this game on a sparkling diamond inside a more meaningful circle. On this unforgettable day, the diamond that is baseball collided head-on with the circle that is life.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.