Manuel enters last year of contract

It wasn’t all that long ago when general manager Pat Gillick stood in front of the local press and said that he didn’t think the Phillies would be able to compete for a playoff spot until 2008. To be fair, it certainly didn’t look good for the Phillies from anyone’s perspective after the team had just sent Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees while dealing away veterans David Bell and Rheal Cormier in a payroll purge that had “Fire Sale” written all over it.

So when Gillick – a GM who has witnessed enough in his four decades in the game to know a salary dump when he saw one – the “wait until the year after next year” was chillingly honest.

“It will be a stretch to say we’ll be there in ’07,” Gillick said on last July 30. “We’ll have to plug in some young pitchers and anytime you do that you’ll have some inconsistency.

“It’s going to take another year.”

But a funny thing happened on the Phillies’ trip to oblivion. After the trading deadline Ryan Howard emerged as the slugger in the Majors by smashing 23 home runs in the final 58 games. Furthermore, Chase Utley joined Howard amongst the game’s elite and clubbed 10 homers in the last month of the season to form a dynamic duo that should be a staple for the Phils well into the next decade.

A team does not live on homers alone, which is a good thing because heralded rookie Cole Hamels showed glimpses of the brilliance everyone had predicted by going 6-3 with a 2.60 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings during the season’s final two months. Those are numbers any veteran would take, let alone a 22-year-old kid who had never completed a full season ever because of one injury or another.

With that, when Jimmy Rollins proclaims the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East everyone just kind of shrugs and says, “Yeah, maybe he’s on to something.”

“We’ve improved ourselves, and some other teams haven’t really done a whole lot,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “We’ve cut some ground on the Mets. On paper, we got stronger in our division.”

In other words, despite Gillick’s anti-Knute Rockne speech, the Phillies believed they were good enough to compete for a playoff spot now. With a youthful exuberance that prevents the players from doing something silly by allowing the media or fans to dictate how good they can be, the Phillies took the season to its final days for the second straight season. Actually, the prospects for success changed so much that Gillick backed off his claim from last July and went out and added a couple of veteran pitchers for the rotation, a veteran bat or two for the bench, and just might have another move up his sleeve to get a relief pitcher before the Phillies break camp in Clearwater and head north in late March.

Suddenly, wait-until-the-year-after-next-year became let’s-get-them-now.

This turnaround begs the question, “How did this happen?” Or better yet: “Just what did the Phillies do to go 36-22 after trading Abreu and three other veterans to nearly reach the playoffs for just the second time since Hamels, Howard and Utley were babies?”

Do you really want to know what the players say? Well… it’s the manager.

“He’s a big reason the chemistry on this team is as good as it is,” Aaron Rowand said at last week’s media luncheon in Citizens Bank Park. “You guys don’t get to see it, the fans don’t get to see it, because you guys aren’t in the clubhouse all the time. You guys aren’t in the dugout during the game when he’s talking to the guys, when he’s conversing with people, helping guys out, pumping guys up. He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever had a chance to play for, and I would have been very sorry to have seen him go after last year.”

Rowand, who won the World Series with Ozzie Guillen as the manager for the White Sox in 2005, isn’t the only player who says these kinds of things, either. Actually, it’s harder to find a player who says Manuel is not his favorite manager. Any player who has spent time with Manuel has lots of stories to tell with most of the subject matter dealing with something that left everyone in stitches and gets retold in an imitation of the skipper’s Virginia drawl.

In that regard, if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery then Charlie Manuel is the most beloved man in Philadelphia.

Yet for as much as the players love him, and for as much as the writing press respects him, something about Manuel’s down home, everyman persona has missed with the sophisticates in Philadelphia. In fact, a common thing heard from folks talking about the Phillies’ chances is that the team is ready to make a run at the playoffs, but if they don’t maybe they’ll finally get rid of that Charlie Manuel.

And because Manuel is heading in to the last season of his three-year deal, it could be playoffs or bust for him.

Yes, he knows all about it.

“Believe me, that doesn’t affect me,” Manuel said. “I want to focus on winning ballgames. It’s not about me. It’s about our players. The players are the ones who are going to win the game for us, and if we’re successful, then I think Charlie Manuel will be successful.”

Make no mistake; there are a lot of people who don’t want the Phillies to be successful for that very reason. Forget that after two seasons in which Manuel won more games than all but one manager in team history through this point in his tenure – a fact first reported on CSN.com. With the Phillies, 173 victories in two seasons in which the team was eliminated from wild-card playoff contention at game Nos. 162 and 161 is borderline historic. Actually, it’s more than remarkable – it’s unprecedented.

This is a franchise, after all, where only two (two!) managers have taken the team to more than one postseason. It’s a franchise that has been to the playoffs just nine times in 123 seasons. For comparisons sake, look at the Atlanta Braves who… wait, nevermind. It just isn’t fair to compare the Phillies to any other franchise.

One thing hasn’t changed from the Phillies’ golden days in the late 1970s and early1980s and that’s the bottom line. In the end, winning is the only thing that matters.

“Ever since I came here, from Day 1, I said I came here to win,” Manuel said. “It’s not, ‘I need to win.’ It’s, ‘Philadelphia needs to win.’ ‘The organization needs to win.’ And I understand that.”

So what happens if the Phillies win in 2007? Does Manuel get a new deal to take him into the next decade, or does the organization allow him to walk away? Of all the intriguing plotlines for the upcoming baseball season, the case of Manuel and his future with the Phillies could be the most interesting. After two seasons littered with hope and promise there is plenty of room for improvement.

But then again, for the Phillies 173 victories in two seasons is nothing to sneeze at.

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