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It's never neat or clean or seamless -- these news conferences when managers are being pointed to the nearest exit ramp. So, there was no chance that the not-so-grand finale of Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia on Friday was going to be any different.
But wow. What an odd scene.
The general manager -- Ruben Amaro Jr. -- fought back teardrops.
The ex-manager sat at his side, yukked it up and said he almost wore his uniform to the news conference.
The team couldn't bring itself to use the word "fired" to describe what had just gone down. ("Phillies Announce Managerial Change," read the carefully worded release.)
Then the manager took the microphone and announced: "I never quit nothin'. And I didn't resign."
So if you were confused about what just happened here, let me try to clear it up for you.
Manuel wasn't going to be the manager of the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies. His GM knew that. Heck, his GM had, essentially, known that for months. But what forced this issue was that, by this week, the manager knew it, too.
|Charlie Manuel's Phillies were 14 games under .500 and 20½ games behind the Braves in the NL East.|
He might not have known that on Opening Day. He might not have known that a month ago. But then came The Meltdown.
Then came 19 losses in 23 games, including a gruesome 1-13 stretch over two successive road trips from hell. And, by Wednesday night, when the Phillies' plane took off from Atlanta bound for Philadelphia, Manuel knew, too.
He knew he was never going to manage another game wearing this uniform. And even as his friends across the game worried that he might finish the best gig of his lifetime with an angry, confrontational stomp-off, 69-year-old Manuel understood he couldn't let it end that way.
So, he agreed to participate in the news conference announcing his firing, his "change" or whatever the heck it was. Then he sidled up to the mike and handled this scene with about as much class and as congenially as anyone in this position could possibly have handled it.
But don't let those smiles and thank-yous fool you. Manuel didn't think what happened to the 2013 Phillies was his fault. He didn't think he deserved to be fired. And he has made it known for months that he wants to keep managing -- if not in Philadelphia, then somewhere else. Anywhere else.
And there is going to come a time when he makes it clear -- possibly to his next employer -- that no manager could have won with the roster he was given.
With a pitching staff that ranked dead last in its league in ERA.
With a bullpen that had allowed more runs than any other team in its league.
With an aging, impatient offense that had seen the second-fewest pitches in baseball -- nearly 2,700 fewer than the Red Sox, if you're counting -- and not nearly enough depth to keep the season from imploding once the injuries hit.
And with a manager who had begun to feel, increasingly, as though he didn't have the backing of his front office to address some of the issues he'd always been quick to deal with in the past.
So you can bet your favorite World Series parade float that, one of these days, Charlie Manuel is going to have some stuff to say about all of that -- in a different time, a different place, a different setting -- just in case anyone out there didn't notice the real reasons his team went careering toward the bottom of the standings.
But he also knows, undoubtedly, that he wasn't the only one who wasn't happy about the way the 2013 Phillies allowed their season to devolve into such a spiritless nightmare.
This just in: His bosses -- they weren't so happy, either.
They knew their team had limitations. They knew this wasn't the 2008-09-10-11 roster they were running out there. But if you heard the GM insisting, even in the past few days, that this team "has talent," you don't need a real vivid imagination to guess he had come to the unsettling conclusion that the manager was mismanaging that talent.
The teams Manuel won with in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the teams he loved best, weren't constructed like this team. They were teams full of mashers, teams loaded with established every-day players, teams full of names the manager could write on his lineup card 150 times a year.
They were the kind of teams, in short, made to order for a manager who believed in letting players play, giving players tremendous freedom to be themselves, and using his remarkable people skills to keep his troops happy and energized.
But this was a team that couldn't operate like that. Couldn't pound baseballs the way those teams could. Couldn't run on cruise control the way those teams could. Couldn't out-talent anybody the way those teams could.
|Manuel will long be remembered in Philadelphia for guiding the Phillies to a World Series title in 2008.|
So, the more the Phillies' powers that be watched Manuel manage the way he always had -- even with a roster that, they felt, needed a whole different sort of approach -- the more it became clear to them that The Time Had Come.
And once they knew, once and for all, that The Time Had Come to change managers, the only question was when, not if.
So, in the past week or so, Amaro began to agonize, sources say, over whether this was the right moment. He sounded out his friends and advisers. He met numerous times, in fact, with Manuel himself.
And once it became clear there wasn't much for either of them to gain by forcing this manager to writhe his way through 42 games worth of uncomfortable questions for no particular purpose, it was time to start typing the news releases.
But the other factor in the timing was this: Ryne Sandberg has been viewed for months as Manuel's anointed heir apparent. But Amaro could not have made it more clear Friday that this front office isn't sure yet whether he's the right man for this job.
So, by doing this now, the Phillies have given themselves 42 games to see what Sandberg looks like in this setting -- how he handles the media, how he handles an odd mix of players, how he fits beneath the glare of one of the toughest managerial jobs in America.
And that's why they slapped the word "interim" onto his title Friday -- as opposed to, say, "successor."
But then again, this was a day in Philadelphia when all the words were chosen carefully -- some more carefully and effectively than others. There is one word, though, that hung above the rest, one word about which there could be no confusion.
And it was the last word the winningest manager in Phillies history will ever hear in a town where he got to ride in an unforgettable parade down Broad Street.
That word, of course, was "goodbye."