Most of the immediate reactions I’ve seen from Phillies fans to the end Charlie Manuel‘s tenure have been emotional. And rightly so–Manuel is the most decorated manager in Phillies history and one of the most beloved figures in local sports. The man who orchestrated his removal, Ruben Amaro, is…well, not universally reviled, but not the most popular person either. It’s a sports story with an easy good guy and a bad guy, where the good guy shuffles off into the sunset with his Wawa bag.
I don’t want to look at it that way. Rationally, was this the right thing to do?
- Charlie Manuel’s contract was going to run out at the end of the season. He’ll be 70 years old by next Opening Day. That’s retirement age for a manager. Casey Stengel was fired by the Yankees at 70. Joe Torre retired at 70. Tommy Lasorda retired at 69. Tony La Russa retired at 67, Bobby Cox at 69. Nationals manager Davey Johnson, 70, is going to retire at the end of the season…you don’t undertake a rebuild with a manager in his 70s. The end of Manuel’s contract would have given him and the Phillies a way to terminate his career amicably, maybe moving him into an emeritus role in the front office if he wanted to. Manuel should never have been the Phillies’ manager in 2014. Not because he’s not capable, but because it’s a convenient place to turn the page–this is going to be a new team and should be built under new leadership.
This is where it gets tricky–Amaro told Manuel that his contract wouldn’t be renewed, and obviously there was some sort of shared decision not to have Manuel continue in a lame duck role. (Manuel’s comments about “I didn’t resign and I did not quit” I take in a more general sense, meaning that he’d have returned next season if he were wanted.)
“And so Amaro informed Manuel that the Phillies would not be renewing his contract for the 2014 season. After some more discussion, Amaro told Manuel, the winningest manager in club history, that he would be immediately replaced from his position.”
That “some more discussion” is the whole story, and within that discussion is the key to whether or not this is a smart move. At some point, Amaro had to stop stringing Manuel along and level with him about whether he’d be around next year. I would assume that the scenario I mentioned above–Manuel’s retirement, followed by his promotion to Special Assistant to the GM or some such position–was discussed, and Manuel turned it down. Somehow, Amaro and Manuel reached the decision where the final year of Manuel’s tenure would be cut short. But how much of that decision was Amaro’s, and how much was Manuel’s, is very important. Here’s why:
- If Manuel’s out now because he didn’t want to be a lame duck manager, I don’t know what else could be done. I certainly wouldn’t blame him for not wanting to sit around for his own funeral. And given that, Sandberg, long declared Manuel’s heir presumptive, is the most logical choice to replace him, the Phillies made the most logical decision.
- If Manuel’s out now because Amaro encouraged him to fall on his own sword, that I find kind of inexplicable. I’m ordinarily not one to cry foul over norms in baseball, but the season’s already lost–if Manuel had wanted to play out the string, the Phillies should have let him play out the string and go out with a little more dignity. Canning a manager with Manuel’s track record, with a team in this position and in a season this dead and buried, just seems bizarre. What could possibly be gained by firing Manuel now? Is he going to stunt the development of young players in six weeks, in such a way that Ryne Sandberg wouldn’t? Would he have sowed discontent among the players? Most importantly–is 42 games enough to evaluate a first-time manager like Sandberg, gaining any useful information to how he’d run a ballclub going forward? Of course not, particularly considering that if Sandberg’s smart, he’ll use what he learns in the coming weeks to alter his approach for next season, if the interim tag is dropped.
If Manuel was truly forced out, that’s troublesome for two reasons:
- It would be a panic move and a gross misreading of public perception by Amaro. Deciding to get a head start on Sandberg speaks to a desire to change the narrative, to squeeze out a season that ends a little closer to .500 perhaps. This could be the first sign of trouble for Amaro.
- It hands the job to Sandberg.
It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if Sandberg had been named Manuel’s successor anyway, but giving him the job now, as opposed to in the offseason, signals a commitment to a plan that was put in place almost three years ago, with no re-evaluation of the data. An offseason search, even if Sandberg was declared the leader in the clubhouse, would have allowed the Phillies to at least look around and see if Dave Martinez (or DeMarlo Hale, or Manny Acta, or John McLaren or whoever the Phillies chose to interview) would’ve been a better option. After being groomed to manage the Phillies for three years (and the Cubs for some time before that), Sandberg would pretty much have to stab Ethan Martin in the neck in order not to get the interim tag taken off come October.
It’s the same principle as the Ryan Howard contract–making a commitment before you have to and cutting off your options without gaining a significant advantage in return. Who knows? Maybe Sandberg will be great. I hope he is. But I fear that the only reason everyone got so excited about Sandberg being installed as manager-in-waiting is that the Phillies are still smarting from trading him at the start of a Hall of Fame career 30 years ago. And that his return as manager will somehow smooth over that memory. I might be wrong, but I can’t shake the thought.
But that’s why it’s so important to know how and why Manuel left. Because if he was forced out now, instead of at the end of the season, and instead of choosing to leave on his own terms, Amaro had best be absolutely certain that Sandberg is not only the most convenient successor, but the right one.