The Only Way Charlie Manuel Lives


"“It’s always good to be first.  It’s the only way to live.”"

The Phillies backup-everything slowly shifted their gaze toward Charlie Manuel.  He’d been silent, letting the echoes of his cud chew themselves off the sides of the dugout.  But this sudden utterance caught them off guard.  Even Rich Dubee seemed to shift under his low-brimmed cap, but it turned out he was just crushing some ants to death that seemed especially happy about something.

Dom Brown and Roy Oswalt let one of their patented weirded-out glances float between them.  Their relationship had yet to reach a conversational level, but all it needed to be was shared cluelessness for the point to get across.

The Phillies eighth inning had been a rancid necropolis thus far, making the dugout in no mood for senility.  But Charlie hadn’t directed his comment toward them; he spat it out onto the field, where he was hoping it would hop into somebody’s pocket and turn things around.  Instead, it had quickly disintegrated into the infield dirt and before anyone could hear what had been said, there was a balk, and a throwing error, and a wild pitch.

It was what Charlie had often referred to as “Three rats in a milk bucket.”  No one knew why.  No one bothered to ask.  No one necessarily wanted to dive into the mysteries of a rural Virginia colloquialism.  And no one said anything, because no one wanted to wake up Dubee and watch him select one of the bench players to slap to death.

Charlie released a heaving sigh, one usually reserved for a man prepared to rope a steer.  But Charlie wasn’t shifting his stare from the mess his Phillies had created.  The bench was imprisoned with their manager for the time being, sitting helplessly on the outside of a horrific mess as Charlie, brandishing his new mantra like it was his soul displayed on a wire hanger, continued to mutter.

There’d been a flood of home runs to crystallize the contest.  Ryan Howard had not struck out 379 feet long.  Shane and Raul had peppered the lead with equal solo onslaughts.  The Pirates, the Pirates, had shut out the Braves.  And yet, dead air hung in Citizen’s Bank Park like a corpse teetering off a ceiling fan.

We need a hero,” thought everyone, except for, again, Dubee, who was for some reason thinking only about steak knives.  The hopeful seven runs the Phils had scored were now matched by a Marlins squad primed for the spoil.

Greg Dobbs stared longingly at the bats in the corner.  Heroism was several feet away, assuming those same bats would be in the hands of another hitter.

The quiet of the Phillies dugout returned, as did the Phillies themselves.  For some reason, the baseball gods had turned their demons off the home team for a moment; or at least, long enough for them to get off the diamond.  Now that the bullpen wasn’t out there painting the next sports section header jagged with disappointment, things, at this particular second, were not on the verge of imploding.

Half an inning later, with two outs perched menacingly on either side of their hope, Placido Polanco stood parallel to home plate and bought himself a hitter’s count.

Moments before, Shane Victorino and Davey Lopes had winked at each other.  Their codes were simple.  One wink “yes.”  Two winks “no.”  Three winks “put your cleats in the shortstop’s femur.”

Shane took his “yes” and scampered towards second base with the rest of the game on his shoulders.  From behind the bag, Davey Lopes watched his job flash before his eyes as Shane went, picturing the blame game in the next day’s paper in which he would be the loser.

But when Shane came out of his slide, he’d emerged in a world where he and Davey’s choice was without directly negative consequence.  In these late inning situations, where drama has the crowd by the hair, small victories were the DNA of big ones.

With the starters back in the dugout, Charlie was heard muttering once more.

"“It’s always good to be first.  It’s the only way to live.”"

“What?” Chase Utley asked out loud.

Wilson Valdez, now all too familiar with the phrase, tapped Chase on the arm and shook his head.  It was a rare case of role reversal, one Chase accepted for now but made a mental note to send Wilson a blistering email later in the evening.

The Phillies’ luck with two outs in the ninth had a way of exploding or puttering out, making it seem like they could be due for either outcome.  So as Placido Polanco, the human anti-strikeout, watched Shane pull into second, and then thought he heard Charlie say something weird from the dugout, he knew what had to be done.

“Charlie.  Charlie!” they yelled, cameras snapping, worlds exploding.  “How does it feel to be back in first for the first time since May 30?!”

Chuck smiled and put the room back together.

"“It’s always good to be first.  It’s the only way to live.”"

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