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William Nack
August 21, 2000
With a style that relies more on feel than on the percentages, manager Jerry Manuel has turned the White Sox into the most surprising success story of the summer
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August 21, 2000

Manuel Dexterity

With a style that relies more on feel than on the percentages, manager Jerry Manuel has turned the White Sox into the most surprising success story of the summer

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Jerry Manuel sits in the dugout, mute and expressionless—his arms crossed, his mouth ruminant, his sunglasses resting on his high, rounded Cherokee cheekbones—looking as if he were carved and sanded from a cut of new mahogany. The Chicago White Sox manager always appears this way, looking serene and Buddha-like as he scans the diamond from his baseline bunker, as he reads the rhythms of the game being played out before him. As usual, he is not looking for the answers in "the book," the text on which all average-to-mediocre managers rely, but is plumbing his viscera for a "sense" of what to do, for the move that feels right, the instinct that points the way.

Such was the case on May 13, nearing nine o' clock at night in Comiskey Park, with the White Sox drifting in their first prolonged doldrums of the year. As recently as May 5 they had led the American League Central by 3� games over the Cleveland Indians, but by mid-May they had lost nine of their last 11 games and had tumbled into a virtual tie for first place with the Indians. At this critical juncture, as Manuel looked down his bench, the Sox were on the verge of swooning yet again, this time into second place. They had but one final breath. It was the last of the ninth, with two outs and the tying run, Carlos Lee, on first base, and they were trailing the Minnesota Twins 3-2.

"Jerry manages by the gut," says Ron Schueler, the White Sox general manager. "He does a lot of work on matchups, but then he says, 'I just got a gut feeling.' " Indeed, of all the things that define Manuel as a manager, that made him the American League's winningest skipper during the season's first four months, none describe the loft of his arc as clearly as his fearlessness in taking risks, his willingness to flout conventional wisdom.

"Jerry is not afraid to lose a ball game," says former player and onetime White Sox general manager, Ken Harrelson, now a Fox TV commentator for the team. "He's not afraid to play a hunch." After all, this is the manager who, on June 11, compromised the Sox' chances to sweep a three-game series with the Cubs—a sweep that rabid Sox fans were clamoring for—when he kept his two best short relievers under wraps, resting them for a vastly more important three-game series against the Indians in Cleveland, and sent out instead a second-level reliever, Jesus Pe�a, who lost the game 6-5. (The Sox swept Cleveland and then took four straight in New York from the Yankees in a pivotal road trip.) This is also the man who, in an age when so many managers are "afraid of the players," according to Harrelson, did not hesitate to discipline and later confront his angry superstar, Frank Thomas, in a spring training shouting match that lanced an old boil, energized the team and helped launch Thomas on what may turn out to be his third MVP season.

So there was Manuel on May 13, as the wheels were coming off, once again zigging when the moment called for zagging. Bob Wells, a righty, was trying to close out the game for the Twins. Not only did Manuel lift his next batter, righthanded hitter Josh Paul, who was batting .283, but he also looked past lefthanded-hitting Mark Johnson and another righthanded hitter, infielder Craig Wilson, who was hitting .319. Manuel looked all the way down to a struggling righty, outfielder Jeff Abbott, who was hitting only .192. Worse, Abbott was batting .115 (3 for 26) lifetime as a pinch hitter. Manuel had studied at the side of two world-class managers, Felipe Alou with the Expos and Jim Leyland with the Marlins. " Harvard and Yale," Manuel deadpans. From them, he learned not only to manage without fear, but also how to watch and read the players, from their swaggers to their swings.

Before batting practice on game days, Manuel hangs an expression on his face that reads DO NOT DISTURB. He walks to short centerfield, behind the second base screen, and watches his players take BP. This is his classroom, his personal seminar on swats. "When BP comes up, I really don't like to be bothered," Manuel says. "I'm studying the hitters to see who is swinging the bat well. That's why I watch so closely. Abbott was swinging the bat well that day, and I felt very good about him. If you have a feel, you've got to go with it."

So off he went. "Jeff, get ready," he told Abbott.

Stunned, Abbott asked, "To pinch-run?"

"No," said Manuel, "to pinch-hit."

Wells fed Abbott a slider for ball one, and, not wanting to fall behind 2 and 0, he fired a fastball, down and in, that ran right over the plate, knee-high. Sitting on the pitch, Abbott golfed it over the fence in left center—"He hit the s—out of it," said Wells—and Abbott had the White Sox dancing out of the dugout as he danced in. "I think I got my swing back," an ebullient Abbott said to Manuel.

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