Bringing a World Series trophy to a title-starved city can do that for a guy, but Charlie Manuel—national hero in Japan, hitting savant, friend to the Amish, Ted Williams and pretty much everyone in between—was a worldly man long before you ever knew
They were an odd-looking pair: the middle-aged man and the senior citizen standing in the middle of a restaurant in the Washington, D.C., Hilton having an animated argument about the proper way to swing a baseball bat. The younger one had a build reminiscent of Babe Ruth—bearish upper body and birdlike legs. That one was Charlie Manuel. The older one had a face that brought to mind Ted Williams. That one was Ted Williams.
Fueled by Chivas and water, Teddy Ballgame had taken a place mat off the table and tossed it onto the floor, where it was serving as home plate. The two men, both lefthanded, were quarreling over which hand, the top or bottom, was more important. Williams was a staunch top-hand guy. Manuel, who'd put away a few VOs, was a top-hand guy too, but only to a point. He believed the bottom hand played a more significant role than Williams was allowing. It might not seem like much of a distinction, but judging by the number of hours (four) and drinks (substantially more than four) they'd killed, it was a big deal to both of them.
On paper, this wasn't a fair fight. Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, literally wrote the book on the subject: The Science of Hitting. Manuel, who batted .198 over six major league seasons, was the hitting coach of the Cleveland Indians, a team that, at the time, couldn't hit a lick. But if there was one thing Manuel loved to do it was talk hitting, so when he bumped into his old friend in the lobby that winter night 20 years ago, he gladly ditched his family—his daughter's high school choir had been invited to D.C. to participate in the ceremony to light the national Christmas tree—to accept Williams's dinner invitation.
Their debate finally came to an end when another patron accidentally stepped on the place mat. "Get off our plate, goddammit, I'm talking about hitting," Williams barked at the woman, effectively killing the mood. As the two men said good night, Williams paid Manuel as big a compliment as he was perhaps capable of giving. "You know something, Meat," Williams said. "I'm not saying you're right. But I've got to think about it."
Talking with Charlie Manuel is a very pleasant, very interesting experience. The 65-year-old manager of the Philadelphia Phillies speaks with a thick western Virginia drawl, and the mild stammer he had as a kid pops up from time to time when he really gets going. His stories stem-wind, and details collide to the point that diagramming one of his sentences would require several of the Penn English department's best men and an oversized blackboard. "That's what always freaks people out," says his longtime companion, Missy Martin. "He can have times when he's talking and he gets distracted and it's not clear what he's saying or he doesn't complete sentences or he doesn't complete a thought, and that's when you think, Geez, this guy just doesn't have it up here."
But when the subject turns to hitting, the stammer disappears and he gets locked in and it's almost as if you're listening to Warren Buffett on investing or Mario Batali on pasta. Manuel has the subject down cold. As a player he'd pick the brains of guys such as Williams (whom he befriended in the early 1970s when the Splinter was managing the Washington Senators and the Texas Rangers and Manuel was an outfielder with the Minnesota Twins) and hitting gurus Charley Lau and Wally Moses. He'd talk to opposing pitchers. "I've read every hitting book that's been put out," Manuel says. None have influenced him as much as The Science of Hitting. He first bought it at a Twin Cities bookstore shortly after it was released in 1970, and a dog-eared copy can be found in each bathroom in the Winter Haven, Fla., house he shares with Martin so that he can revisit it when nature calls. "Might read a page, might read a chapter, might read two or three chapters of it," Manuel says. "I've more or less memorized it."
Of course, memorizing a book on hitting doesn't make someone a great hitting coach. Manuel rose through the ranks because he can take what he's picked up and teach other people—often young men who think they already know how to hit—to apply it. As a minor league manager and hitting instructor in the Indians' system, he helped develop Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga. His prize pupil was Jim Thome, who was an opposite-field slap hitter with little pop when they met. Manuel taught him to pull the ball and use his natural strength. "No question, he's played the biggest part in my success," says Thome, who has hit 552 home runs in his 19-year career. "He knows mechanics, but the biggest thing Charlie does is teach guys when they get in the box to be relentless. He gets them believing in themselves. Being a hitting instructor is a difficult job because you've got to be friends with your guys, but you've also got to be tough. You've got to be able to sit down and talk to them after a game in the hotel bar and breed confidence in them."
That's one of Manuel's great strengths, his hotel-bar demeanor. It's where he becomes Ol' Cholly—and nobody doesn't like Ol' Cholly, conveyor of Appalachian witticisms and giver of nicknames. (Often something like Buffalo Head or Medicine Ball Face.) Oh, he's country, unabashedly so. He's at ease in his skin no matter where he is. Drop him in a bar, and he'll come out an hour later with three new buddies. Accidentally drop him in the KFC next door, and he'll probably come out with three new buddies and a working knowledge of deep fryers. "He's got an eclectic group of friends, to say the least," says one of them, former pro wrestler and onetime Memphis mayoral candidate Jerry (the King) Lawler. (The King, who grew up in the Cleveland suburbs, is a die-hard Indians fan; Manuel is a serious pro wrestling buff.)
Such a network of friends is nice for your Facebook profile, but it can be dangerous if you're a major league manager. Early in 2007, with the Phillies off to a 3--9 start, Philadelphia talk-radio host Howard Eskin called out Manuel at a postgame press conference for going too easy on his team, for being too much of a players' manager. Manuel responded by inviting Eskin into his office for a firsthand demonstration of just how mad he could get.