NEW YORK – For the better part of a few hours, Charlie Manuel leaned up against the dugout rail, third-base side at Yankee Stadium, spittin' from one side of his mouth and shootin' the stuff with his bench coach, Pete Mackanin, from the other.
Once in a while he'd put his hands in his jacket pockets, or pull the lineup card out of his back left pocket, eye it for a second, and then stuff the dang thing back in. But, mostly, on one of the longer nights of his baseball life, he'd put his elbows up on that rail and watch the World Series go by.
What you can say about Charlie Manuel, Ol' Cholly, he almost done it.
He played it to go seven games, tried to drag the whole thing into a winner-take-all muck, and on a cool Wednesday night in the Bronx came up a couple arms and a few innings short.
Getting there, he'd endured late-inning meltdowns. He'd wondered who to give the ball to next. He'd run his boys to the mound one at a time, asked them to get an inning, get an out, get an inch if that was all they had.
Sometimes it worked. Somehow it did. When every game carried the potential of handing a small lead to Brad Lidge(notes), it's a tough way to run a bullpen. Manuel, though, is loyal as a pound mutt. He figured Lidge would get there eventually, and he'd have his bullpen back, along with the best offense in the National League, and just maybe he'd put that all together and get back to the World Series.
Well, the bullpen was never anything more than a headache. The Phillies went to the World Series anyway, and played all the way through the sixth game before falling to the New York Yankees, and might have forced one more game had Pedro Martinez(notes) had some innings left in him and Ryan Howard(notes) not gone missing for a week.
They'd regret that ninth inning in Game 4 like they'd regret so many other ninth innings, this one when Lidge was handed a tie and gave back a three-run deficit, which probably damaged their chances irreparably.
And yet, by Wednesday evening, Manuel was still dreaming. They all were, because they were still playing ball, and the one thing they knew about baseball was, well, you never know.
With Manuel standing at that rail, Pedro went four choppy innings. Their bullpen game had arrived a day early, and they wouldn't survive it, Manuel probably knew. In the Phillies' second elimination game in three nights, Manuel followed Pedro with Chad Durbin(notes) in the fifth, with J.A. Happ(notes) warming up and bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer staring at the phone, expecting a busy night. Along came Happ, then Chan Ho Park(notes) and Scott Eyre(notes) and Ryan Madson(notes), Billmeyer raising his cap, this one ready, then the next.
All one night too soon. Manuel surely had hoped to use New York's simmering hardball angst against itself, those nine years without a championship, a few fragile psyches in the other dugout seeking career confirmation, reparation and redemption.
Game 7 would not come. Manuel chomped his gum, fetched the baseball, handed it to the next guy, and took to leaning against that rail, watching it go by. He'd gotten it back to New York. He'd gotten the tabloids talking, gotten the people thinking, and had run the Yankees into four consecutive starts on three days' rest, if the series went the distance.
Then, Hideki Matsui(notes), for a night, got the pitches Chase Utley(notes) had been getting for a week. Up in the zone, straight and thick. He drove in six of the Yankees' seven runs. The bases seemed always full of Yankees. The Phillies could have lost by more. A lot more. The Yankees won, 7-3.
In their quiet clubhouse, the Phillies stuffed their road uniforms into red duffel bags. A year ago this time, they were drenching themselves in joy, wearing the victory T-shirts and caps, welcoming their wives and sons and dads into their workplace. Now, those same folks gathered quietly outside in a hallway.
A spring bouquet stood beside Martinez's locker. Martinez had abandoned it, along with a toothbrush and a newspaper, he the first of the Phillies to bolt the stadium. Two balloons bobbed above it. “Thank you,” they said. That Hideki Matsui is a nice man.
“You don't look at it as a failure,” said Howard, who homered Wednesday but batted .174 for the series. “We had a great year. We just got beat by a better team. That's the thing about the World Series, it's never guaranteed.”
Doesn't Charlie Manuel know it. He'd ridden that offense most of the season, had his starting rotation come around about mid-season, then added Cliff Lee(notes) as his ace at the end of July. He worked that bullpen best he could, rode parts, hid parts, manufactured parts.
“Coming out of spring training,” he said, “our bullpen got hurt right away. From that day on … we had to work on it all year long.”
The men out there were game, say that for them. Lidge never quit on himself or them, not ever. Madson took the ball whenever Manuel beckoned. J.C. Romero(notes) served a drug suspension. The rest filled in around them, setting things up, cleaning them up, whatever it took.
It didn't end until the first Wednesday in November, a credit to Manuel.
Asked if the Yankees simply were better, if the difference might simply be the fact the Yankees had Mariano Rivera(notes) and he didn't, Manuel said, “They got real tough. We definitely can play with them. Are they better than we are? This series they were. They've got the trophy. We gave it up. But, we're going to get it back.”
His collar turned up against a cool breeze that would sneak in from left field, Manuel watched Rivera retire the final five Phillies of 2009. Camera flashes lit the ballpark like dancing jewels. Premature confetti fell around him and littered his red jacket.
The Yankees rushed from their dugout. Only then did Manuel leave his post, turning and descending those few dugout stairs.
Almost. Yessir, Ol' Cholly almost done it.
- Charlie Manuel