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"Charlie's just an old country boy," says former pitcher Clyde Wright, himself an old country boy who has known Manuel for more than 30 years. "He can talk to people without pissing them off. He can tell people how he wants it done, and they listen. Now, if they don't listen, Charlie can get the ass every now and then. He can put people in their place." And that's what Manuel communicated to Eskin as the two men screamed at each other behind closed doors. All his life he'd been winning over people from all walks of life on two continents. But he'd also done his share of fighting.
They were an odd-looking pair: the burly American ballplayer and the little half-gaijin who followed him everywhere he went. Luigi Forenza was born in Japan to an Italian father and a Japanese mother. One of his friends at the international high school in Tokyo had been Don Nomura, the son of Nankai Hawks slugger Katsuya Nomura. Since Luigi spoke English as well as Japanese, the elder Nomura got him a job as a translator for Americans playing in Japan's Central League.
Luigi was working for the Yakult Swallows in 1976 when the Tokyo-based team signed Manuel for $100,000 a year, or five times what he was making sitting on the Dodgers' bench. His major league career had begun with the Twins in 1969. After a hot start in his rookie season—he was hitting .311 after his first 26 games—he broke his left ankle, and his playing time and batting average went south. Manuel found himself called on for three things: pinch-hitting, milking the occasional cow in pregame p.r. stunts and helping manager Billy Martin entertain his drinking buddy Mickey Mantle when the recently retired slugger was in town. ("You won't be playing tomorrow," Martin assured Manuel before sending him out into the night with the Mick.)
Manuel bounced between the bigs and the minors, throwing up gaudy numbers on the farm (.372 with 19 homers in 225 Triple A plate appearances in '71) and routinely putting on a show in batting practice. While the 6'4" 200-pounder couldn't hit the awesome pitching he saw at the major league level, he certainly could crush the half-decent pitching in the Japan leagues. Manuel arrived in the Far East unsure of what to expect. He was greeted at the Tokyo airport by Luigi, who led him into a small room packed with 100 print and TV reporters. "I was kinda petrified," says Manuel, never the object of much interest from the media in his major league career.
From there, the situation got only more surreal. After a short flight to Kogoshima Island, he took a two-hour ride on a pink bus to his hotel room near the Swallows' practice facility. After three hours of something approximating sleep on a futon, he was up at 5:30 for breakfast. "Seaweed and these eggs where a part of the shell is cut off, and they're about half-cooked," he says. "And I had some rice over here. I couldn't eat breakfast." Then it was back on the pink bus with his teammates for a short hop to the practice field, which could be reached only by climbing 169 steps up a hill. His teammates sprinted up. Manuel made it to 39 before he started walking. Practice—formation running, crawling around under ropes and plenty of hitting—ended when it was dark; then it was back on the bus for the return to the hotel. Jet-lagged, sleepy and sore, Manuel, still in his uniform, collapsed onto his futon. Luigi and Roger Repoz, a former Yankee who was an outfielder for the Swallows, tried to revive him by carrying him off to the hotel's public bath and stripping him, whereupon Manuel quickly dozed off in a corner.
When he awoke a short time later, Manuel discovered he was no longer alone. About 40 Japanese women had arrived for their postwork baths. No one in the room was wearing a stitch of clothing. "It was almost like I was dreaming," he says. He quickly realized he wasn't. The women, most of whom hadn't seen an American up close, were intrigued—especially by the hair on his arms, which they insisted on touching. After they left, Repoz and Luigi returned to take Manuel back to his room, where Ol' Cholly's first day in Japan finally came to an end.
Manuel eventually grew acclimated to the Japanese life. He, Repoz and Clyde Wright, who pitched for the Tokyo Giants, enjoyed the kind of nights on the town that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson had in Lost in Translation, usually with poor Luigi in tow. Most memorable was the time they tried to protect the honor of a woman who was being hassled in a bar by a group of men who turned out to be the East German national hockey team. "Oh, good God, we got the s--- beat out of us," says Wright, who was given the nickname Crazy Wright-o by the Japanese. "Hockey players are tough."
Japanese fans took to the gruff Americans, but the homegrown players were less enamored. In the 1970s signing gaijin, or foreigners, was still a relatively new practice in Japan, and they were often shunned by their teammates, who viewed them as mercenaries. Manuel didn't do his best to foster diplomatic relations; he routinely broke taboos, calling his coaches by their first names or letting them know what he thought of being asked to run sprints in 100° weather six hours before game time. Any argument went through Luigi, who had trouble translating some of Manuel's bluer rants. "I really couldn't find any words to translate," says Luigi, whom Manuel took to calling the Sandwich Man because he was always stuck in the middle. (After a choppy start, Manuel and Luigi became close; they still keep in touch.)
The cold shoulders from their teammates were downright hospitable compared with the Americans' treatment by opposing pitchers and umpires. "If you ever got in the top 10 in any stat, you just knew that you weren't going to get a pitch to hit, and you were going to get called out on balls a foot outside," says Chris Arnold, a former San Francisco Giant who played two seasons with Manuel in Japan. And Manuel, after a disappointing first season, was regularly in the top 10 in a lot of stats. "He had a Japanese umpire come up to him and tell him in English, 'Charlie, you are big and strong, so I have to help them,'" says Repoz. "He was telling him straight up, 'Anything close, you better be swinging.'"
Out of necessity, Manuel became a spectacular bad-ball hitter. "Here's a typical at bat," says Arnold. "The first pitch, he'd bail out, and he'd still have to jackknife it because the ball would be right at his ribs. The next pitch would be a foot outside, and they'd call that a strike. Then they'd come back inside another 12 inches, and he'd step back. Then he'd turn to me and say, 'Watch this.' I can't tell you how many times he called his own shot. I'm telling you, it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. I played with Hall of Famers. I played with Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Gaylord Perry. But I've never seen anything in my life like what Charlie Manuel did on a daily basis."