When Casey Stengel was forced out as manager of the Yankees in 1960, he said, "I'll never make the mistake of being 70 again." Charlie Manuel, until Friday the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, made it to 69.
Manuel was let go today, replaced on an interim basis by Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, 53. Manuel easily found the most success as manager of a team that has not known a great deal of it, winning two pennants and the 2008 World Series. He was one 100-win season on his record (2011), plus three other 90-win campaigns (as well as two more with his previous team, the Cleveland Indians). His club won five consecutive NL East titles from 2007 to 2011. The Phillies, 53-67, currently stand fourth in the National League East and, despite the frequent protestations of general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., have not been a factor this season.
No doubt Phillies executives are disappointed in their team's performance, but they have no reason to be. Nothing has happened that is in any way inconsistent with their old and fragile on-field personnel. In fact, as measured by their expected (Pythagorean) record, they're three games better than they should be. With weak draft classes, trades of the prospects that the team did develop for veterans, and the subsequent swapping out of veterans for little return (see, for example, the 2009 trade of Cliff Lee to the Mariners for Tyson Gillies, Phillipe Aumont, and J.C. Ramirez), and an overly-affectionate embrace of the team's aging heroes, the Phillies' roster became a decaying monument to past glories. This tendency was only accelerated last winter when the club tried to fend off the inevitable by freighting the club with ill-fitting, low-value refugees from other team's highlight reels, including low-offense/low-defense players in the two Youngs, Michael and Delmon.
None of this is to say that Manuel was another John McGraw. He had a largely minimalist style, sticking to set lineups and staying out of the way when possible. Like all managers, he rose and fell with the quality of the roster he was given, and this year he wasn't given much -- some good pitchers, at least on paper, some hitters of too fine a vintage, and a non-existent defense.
In this afternoon's press conference, Amaro and Manuel indicated that the team had decided that Manuel would not return in 2014. "We're in a transition phase. We're looking to the future," Amaro said. While Amaro conceded that Manuel would have been capable for managing for a few more years, Sandberg's youth apparently cut in his favor. This makes sense if the organization is taking the long view. There was also likely the sense that if Manuel was allowed to live out his natural professional lifespan, Sandberg would either go stale on the shelf or leave altogether.
Both are realistic considerations for an organization that obviously values Sandberg. However, the timing is questionable. "I never quit nothin' and I didn't resign," Manuel said today. "As we talked a little bit further, it became evident that the best course of action would be to make this change immediately," Amaro said. "Charlie understood this decision."
Sure, the Phillies are in a tailspin right now, going 14-23 (.378) over the last six weeks, but that's hardly on Manuel. "We could have more energy," he said, "When you're not playing well, when you're not scoring runs, you don't look good." There is certainly the possibility that the Phillies' veterans have "tuned him out," as one reporter at Manuel's final press conference put it, but nonetheless, given Manuel's contributions to the franchise, he deserved to finish out the season doing the job that he loved if he so desired. We don't know if he chose to jump now or Amaro pushed him, but the latter's tears do not excuse the abrupt nature of this departure, directly after Manuel had won his 1000th game as manager.
Nevertheless, the Phillies will now get a chance to see how third-base coach Sandberg operates as a major-league manager. Players who have had his level of success in the majors -- think Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams -- have often had a hard time relating to the mere mortals on their teams. Sandberg, who has had some success managing in the minors, may have greater perspective than that. Still, like Manuel he will have to labor under this team's many handicaps. The Phillies may turn around some under him, it may not -- most losing teams keep on losing because their flaws extend far beyond some old guy who might be bunting too often or taking the occasional catnap on the bench during an extra-inning game. In fact, what's most important about these final games on Sandberg is nothing -- the Phillies have a few prospects on the way up, but not enough for the team to do a 180, and the bad contracts -- like Ryan Howard's -- go on and on.
In short, the Phillies have put the manager of the future in place, but the future itself may be slow in coming. And if they lost a little dignity along the way, sacrificed a little bit of respect, well, that's just the cost of doing business. Only one thing is certain: Manuel took the fall for years of impulsive, live-for-today roster management. Now there's no one to stand between Amaro and responsibility for the malformed team he created.