charlie manuel

Charlie Manuel keeps his promise to Roy Halladay's son

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Jim Salisbury/NBCSP

Charlie Manuel keeps his promise to Roy Halladay's son

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s not hard to find Charlie Manuel in spring training. In late mornings, he’s perched behind the batting cage watching Phillies hitters take their swings. During the game, he’s on the top step of the dugout, taking it all in and offering advice where needed.

Manuel didn’t stay for the game Saturday. He watched batting practice, showered and drove out of the parking lot 30 minutes before the first pitch.

Manuel, you see, had a promise to keep.

Back in November, Manuel was one of nine people to speak at Roy Halladay’s memorial service at Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ spring training home. Manuel stood at a podium near the very mound that Halladay trained on and spoke from the heart about what an honor it was to manage such a great talent and competitor. Manuel had jotted his words down on a paper, but he didn’t stick completely to his script that day. At one point, he looked down at Halladay’s two grieving sons, Braden and Ryan, and told them he’d be keeping tabs on their progress as young ballplayers. Manuel promised to attend their games. And that’s just what he did Saturday afternoon.

Braden Halladay, a lanky 17-year-old right-hander who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, on and off the mound, is a member of the Canadian Junior Team’s spring training roster. He was born in Toronto when his dad played for the Blue Jays, hence his eligibility to pitch for Canada.

On Saturday, Braden pitched a scoreless eighth inning against a Jays’ split-squad team on the very Dunedin Stadium mound where his dad began his career.

“I’m so glad I came over,” Manuel said after Braden’s perfect inning of work. “He did good. I’m glad he got ‘em out.”

This wasn’t the first time Manuel had seen Braden pitch. Braden pitches for Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, where he is a junior. Manuel watched him pitch five shutout innings earlier in the week. And on Wednesday night, Manuel attended young brother Ryan’s practice in Clearwater.

Manuel has a warm spot for the boys for a lot of reasons. Obviously, there was the respect he had for their dad. “When I think of Roy, I think of the perfect game and playoff no-hitter first,” Manuel said. “Right after that, I think of his work ethic. It was the best I’ve ever seen.” 

But Manuel’s affection for the boys goes beyond the respect he had for their dad. Manuel was 18, the oldest son in a family of 11 children, when he lost his dad.

“I feel for those boys,” Manuel said. “I know what they’re going through and it isn’t easy. Not easy at all.”

It takes a lot of love to get through a tragedy like the one the Halladay family has gone through. The boys get it from their mom, Brandy, who is at all of their games. And they get it from people like Charlie Manuel.

Saturday’s first pitch at Dunedin Stadium, just a few miles from the Phillies’ ballpark, was scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Manuel wanted to hustle over so he could wish Braden luck before the game. Manuel made his way down to the bullpen area and spotted one of his former Phillies players, Pete Orr, who is a coach with the Canadian team. Orr called over to Braden. A huge smile crossed the kid’s face when he saw Manuel. He sprinted over and gave Manuel a hug. Orr, who grew up near Toronto, slapped Braden on the back of his Team Canada jersey and said, “He looks good in red and white.”

He sure did.

Braden chatted with Manuel for a minute or two, and Manuel wished him luck. A reporter from Philadelphia asked Braden what it felt like to have Manuel keep tabs on his baseball career.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Braden said with a big smile. “It means a lot to me.”

The reporter wished him luck and told him that all of Philadelphia was rooting for him.

“I appreciate that,” the young pitcher said before trotting off to join his teammates.

Braden Halladay is 6-3 and 150 pounds. He entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with his team down, 11-3, at first to a smattering of applause. That grew into a big, beautiful round of applause after the PA man announced his name and everyone in the crowd realized the magnitude of the moment. Braden knelt behind the mound and wrote his dad’s initials in the dirt before delivering his first pitch. His pitching delivery is smooth and fundamentally pure.

“You can tell Roy worked with him,” Manuel said.

Braden mixed his pitches nicely in getting two pop-ups and a ground ball. He hit 83 mph on the stadium radar gun. A few months ago, Braden announced that he had committed to Penn State. Manuel sees a lot of promise in the kid.

“When he’s 21, he’ll pitch at 205 pounds,” Manuel said. “He’ll get stronger. You watch, he’s got a chance to be real good. He has a good, quick arm, command of the ball and mechanics.”

Where the game will eventually take Braden Halladay is a story for another day. Back in November, he sat in the middle of a baseball field and listened to people eulogize his dad. It was an excruciatingly difficult experience and the look on his face that day said as much.

So on Saturday, it was just great to see Braden Halladay back on a baseball field with a smile on his face. And it was great to see Charlie Manuel there, taking it all in, just as he had promised.

Phillies tell hulking power hitter Dylan Cozens to tone it down

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Jim Salisbury/NBCSP

Phillies tell hulking power hitter Dylan Cozens to tone it down

CLEARWATER, Fla. – At 6-6, 245 pounds, Dylan Cozens was the biggest player in Phillies camp last spring.

This year, he's bigger.

“Yeah,” Cozens said with a laugh. “I’m 270 pounds now.”

And it’s all muscle.

Cozens, a 23-year-old corner outfielder, hit the weight room hard this offseason. So now, his muscles have muscles.

There is a plan behind the added strength. Cozens struggled at Triple A last season. He hit just .210 and struck out 194 times. He still has awesome power from the left side, as evidenced by 27 homers and 74 RBIs last season. But he needs to make more contact if he’s going to board the same Philadelphia-bound train that Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro did last season.

More contact is the reason for the added strength.

“Just to have easier power,” Cozens said. “The plan is easier swings with two strikes.

New manager Gabe Kapler spent significant time digging into the Phillies' roster this winter, learning everything he could about his new players. That included players who hadn’t reached the majors yet, prospects like Cozens, the Double A Eastern League MVP from 2016.

Kapler and the Phillies' staff, which includes new hitting coach John Mallee, are looking for Cozens to simply swing a little easier. That could equal more contact, and more contact – for a man of Cozens’ size – will equal more home runs.

“Effort level is always big when it comes to making contact,” Kapler said. “I’m not trying to hit the ball 500 feet. I can hit it 400 feet and it’s still a homer. And by the way, I’m this big and strong and all I really need to do is make flush contact with the baseball. So thinking about being a good hitter first and a power hitter second will actually increase his home run totals and increase his on-base capabilities, which are both things I think he’d be happy with.”

Kapler trotted out an analogy in talking about Cozens.

“Effort level speaks to how hard I’m swinging,” Kapler said. “Am I coming with my 90 percent effort level or am I coming with my 100 percent effort level? If all my muscles are firing and my jaws are clenched and I’m going full speed ahead, I might not be running as fast as if I was more like a cheetah, right? I think that’s the message we would send to Dylan. You’re more a cheetah than a brute. Let it fly, be easy, and that’s going to create loud contact for him because he’s as strong as any individual I’ve been around. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a guy with that level of strength and power ever on a baseball field before.”

Cozens arrived at camp early and has been working with Mallee and Charlie Manuel.

Manuel never met a power hitter he didn’t love. He raves about some of the moon shots that Cozens has hit in batting practice.

“He’s got talent,” Manuel said, emphasizing the last word. “He hits balls completely out of the ballpark. If he controls his swing, he’ll be fine.”

Cozens was recruited to play defensive end by the University of Arizona, but instead signed with the Phillies after being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft. He looked to be on a fast track to the big leagues when he pulverized Eastern League pitchers in 2016. Despite striking out 186 times, he hit .276 with 40 homers, 125 RBIs and a .941 OPS. Last season, his OPS dipped .719. He hit .217 against right-handers and .194 against lefties.

“It was terrible,” Cozens said of his season. “I lost my core mechanics. Just a lack of confidence. I doubted myself. Mentally and mechanics-wise, I felt like it was a mess. I was all over the place. I wasn’t consistent at all. I got in my own head.

“I was trying all sorts of different things. I was in on the plate, off the plate, bigger leg kick, smaller leg kick, toe tap, no stride.”

As Cozens fiddled with his mechanics he saw several friends and longtime teammates – players that he’d always been mentioned with as the next generation of Phillies – go to the majors. A year ago at this time, Cozens was thinking he’d play in the majors in 2017. Looking back now …

“I didn’t deserve it,” he said. “I don’t think where I was at with my mechanics being all over the place, and where I was mentally being all over the place, it would have been a good start for me. You don’t want to go up there and fail. You want to be ready for when you’re up there and I didn’t feel like I was ready.”

Cozens’ current swing mechanics are closer to what they were in 2016: Small leg kick. A little hand movement.

“Toning it down,” he said. “I know I can play better than I did last year.”

And so does Kapler.

“You don’t ignore the fact that he needs to make more contact,” the manager said. “That’s 100 percent true.

“If you ask him, he’ll say, ‘If I make more contact I will hit more home runs and be much more valuable to my team. I will reach base more and I will give myself a better chance to be a Philadelphia Phillie.’ “

That’s the goal for Dylan Cozens. One bad season hasn’t changed that. He still has the tools to make it happen.

"I want to have an amazing spring training and force them to make a decision to keep me up there," Cozens said. "It’s probably unlikely, so go to Triple A, hit the ground running and make the decision hard on them.”

Some of my favorite Jim Thome memories

Some of my favorite Jim Thome memories

I am thinking of Jim Thome today.

About his time with the Phillies.

And about his richly deserved election to Baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday (see story).

I am thinking of Jim Thome today, and here are a few things I remember most about the humble, goodhearted man who treated everyone well — except, of course, the pitchers who served up his 612 career homers.

• The Phillies wanted Thome badly, wanted him to be the centerpiece of their reawakening and the move into Citizens Bank Park. They spent the fall of 2002 passionately recruiting him. General manager Ed Wade ducked out of Thanksgiving Day preparations with his family to write Thome and his wife, Andrea, a passionate and heartfelt email in which he listed the reasons why he hoped Thome would sign with the Phillies, why he thought Thome would be a good fit with the team and the city. The email, and a six-year, $85 million contract, helped land Thome. But so did this: On the day Thome toured Philadelphia and the construction site that would become Citizens Bank Park, he was greeted with an impromptu pep rally from members of the Local 98 Electricians Union. The workers even presented the free-agent slugger with a cap emblazoned with words Philadelphia Wants Jim Thome. It really touched Thome, a blue-collar guy from Peoria, Illinois, whose dad, Chuck, worked making bulldozers for Caterpillar. Only a small portion of Thome's Hall of Fame career unfolded here in Philadelphia. That organic outpouring from Local 98 helped bring the man to town.

• I will never forget Thome's first spring training with the Phillies in 2003. It was a certifiable event, his every move chronicled by a band of reporters. One quiet morning at Carpenter Complex, Thome was taking batting practice on Robin Roberts Field. Manager Larry Bowa was pitching. Bowa is a great BP pitcher with an amazing knack for putting everything right in a hitter's wheelhouse. With all eyes on him, Thome turned on one of Bowa's perfect serves and drove it high over the right-field fence, so high that it cleared a weed-choked embankment and landed up on the edge of Highway 19, the heavily traveled road that slices through Pinellas County. How far did that ball travel? Intrepid reporter Bob Brookover found out. He borrowed a tape measure from the grounds crew and crawled up the embankment to where the ball landed near a construction site. Five-hundred thirty eight feet. And six inches. 538½ feet. That's more than a tenth of a mile. Wow. Did Jim Thome know how to announce his arrival, or what?

• A decade later and then a veteran near the end of his career, Thome was back with the Phillies in a reserve role in 2012. He hit five homers in 30 games with the Phils that season and two of them remain indelible. On June 13 in Minneapolis, he launched a 466-foot bomb over the centerfield wall. It landed in the concession area next to a stand that sold a local specialty — fried walleye on a stick. Thome was able to retrieve the home run ball, the 606th of his career. "I think it had a walleye stick in it," he joked. Ten days later, Thome hit the last of his 101 homers with the Phillies. It was a pinch-hit, walk-off shot to beat Tampa Bay at Citizens Bank Park. First-year Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon had blown a save in the top of the inning and promised $5,000 to the person who got him off the hook with a game-winning homer. Of course, Thome obliged. And the money was donated to charity.

• My first personal interaction with Thome came in a one-on-one interview not long after he signed with the Phillies. It was right before Christmas 2002. He was a new father, full of curiosity, bliss and wonderment over the arrival of his daughter, Lila. As he talked about the blessings of fatherhood, he asked me if I had kids. I said yes. He looked at me in that earnest way of his and said, "Let me ask you a question: Did your wife breastfeed?" He was always a one-of-a-kind superstar, completely real and down to earth.

• Thome's first and most notable stint in Philadelphia began with celebrations, a 47-homer season and a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2003. It ended with much less fanfare. He was hurt in 2005 and Ryan Howard had come up to hit 22 home runs in 88 games to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. While some might have groused about a young player coming up and taking his job, Thome was pure class, a lesson in humility and humanity as he supported Howard. After the season, he was traded to the White Sox. He said he completely understood the move. He talked-up Howard, said he was going to be a star. And he said Philadelphia would always hold a special place in his heart. He said the same thing Wednesday night after learning he'd been elected to the Hall of Fame.

I was thinking about Jim Thome today and these are some of my favorite memories.