The Phillies asked Charlie Manuel to come back into active duty.
There was no way he could say no.
“Not only do I feel an obligation to (owner) John Middleton but to also the Phillies,” Manuel said before batting practice on his first day as the team’s hitting coach Wednesday.
In a desperate attempt to kick-start the offense over the final 43 games — and maybe make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 — the Phillies fired John Mallee on Tuesday and installed Manuel in the role in which he gained baseball-wide prominence as Cleveland’s hitting coach in the late 1990s before coming to Philadelphia and winning a World Series as manager.
Manuel was back in uniform Wednesday night, six years to the day after he managed his last game with the Phillies, and leading a group of hitters trying to beat Cole Hamels, the guy who was World Series MVP on the Phillies’ 2008 world championship team.
Middleton, still trying to get that bleeping trophy back more than a decade later, started feeling out Manuel about possibly helping out the offense during Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown last month. Both were there to honor Roy Halladay. In fact, Manuel flew to Cooperstown on Air Middleton.
Manuel said Middleton subsequently left him a couple of voicemails before general manager Matt Klentak phoned on Monday morning about 10 a.m.
“I had no idea why he was calling, really,” Manuel said. “When he asked me if I would take the hitting job for the rest of the season, I told him I had to think about it. He told me to take my time and give him a call back.”
Manuel “fiddled around outside, cleaned my garage, did bits of things, and thought about it.” He called Klentak back at 9 p.m. Monday night and said he’d take the job. He’d worked as a front office adviser since the start of the 2016 season.
“I've been getting paid the last five or six years,” he said. “I've been getting to go to the ballpark whenever I want to. It's a pretty big deal to me getting meal money. I haven't missed any meals. I get to stay in a free hotel. I definitely wanted to accept. After I thought about it, I felt like I owed the Phillies that much. After I thought about it, I decided to take this job until the end of the season.”
At 75, Manuel has no aspirations to manage again. He does not want to be hitting coach next year.
This is a 43-game sprint to try to salvage an offense and a season.
“I’m excited,” Manuel said. “It’s a challenge. I’ve never been scared of nothing like that, especially when it comes to hitting. We’re inconsistent. We can be better. We need to be better. That’s one thing that helped my decision.”
Manuel is familiar with all of the Phillies hitters. He’s worked with some in the minors and spring training. He watches most every game on TV.
He mentioned the need for hitters to make more contact. He wants to see more base runners. He will only stress walks in the context that if the pitcher doesn’t come in the strike zone, take the walk. But if you get a pitch to hammer, hammer it, regardless of the count.
He will not jump on hitters and force his views. He has always stressed having a clear mind and a tension-free approach at the plate. In recent weeks, Phillies hitters have pressed and put pressure on themselves. Manuel will try to ease that pressure and build their confidence. He's very good at that.
“You work off of a guy’s talent,” he said. “You get to know that guy from a mental aspect and physical talent and things like that. I teach off the player. I don’t teach off Charlie Manuel’s way.”
If there’s one thing Manuel is sure to stress, it’s this:
“We have to get back and enjoy playing the game,” he said. “Hitting in situations, situational hitting, do some things correct, move runners, just start playing the game and having a lot of fun.
"I think the environment can be different as far as just talking to guys and letting them talk to me. I think we can get better. We need to get better. We have a talented team.”
Some have wondered if it will be awkward for Manuel, so popular as Phillies skipper, to work with Gabe Kapler, who has yet to be embraced by fans. Manuel downplayed that, saying, “I’m 75, nothing bothers me,” and said he was eager to work with Kapler.
Kapler was aligned with many of the teachings of Mallee — getting the ball in the air, using analytics to build game plans and approaches to certain pitchers. Manuel is more of a get-your-work-in, see-the-pitch-and-react guy. Kapler spent an hour with Manuel on Wednesday afternoon. He might need big success from Manuel’s hitters to save his job.
“There’s a lot of care and authenticity in Charlie," Kapler said. "Before I see anything else, I see the success, the track record, the success managing in this city and I look up to Charlie.
“A lot of his natural philosophies on hitting are the philosophies we have in place with the Phillies right now and there’s a lot of synergy there. Simple things, like one of the things we discussed was hitters' looking for a pitch to drive and if that pitch isn’t there, taking it until you get a pitch to drive. We talked a lot about situational hitting and how important it is to put the ball in play and some of the ways that we can do that. One of the ways is also getting the pitcher on the plate, so that we’re chasing less frequently and staying committed to that approach, looking for a pitch to drive and when it’s there, not missing it.”
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