At one point during last night’s first game of the 2009 World Series, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was shown in the dugout wearing a batting glove. Leaving aside for a moment the greater absurdity that baseball managers wear uniforms at all (picture a basketball or football coach doing the same) let’s consider the possible reasons why Manuel was dressed to take some cuts.
1. The one-glove look was a marketing ploy to promote the new Michael Jackson concert movie.
2. Manuel was a little chilly. Just judging from what I could see on television, it looked pretty raw out there. The man is sixty-five years old. Maybe the conditions were making the joints in his fingers ache, and a batting glove was the only thing around to add some extra insulation.
3. It was a tribute to Marlon Brando’s classic bit of physical improvisation in On the Waterfront. In that movie, there’s a scene in a playground in which Eva Marie Saint drops her glove, and Brando picks it up (at least I think that’s how Brando gets his hand on her glove—it’s been a while since I saw the movie). Instead of handing it back to her, he plays with it as they continue to talk, putting the tiny thing on his hand as he sits on a swing. In some ways, it’s the most moving moment in the film for me, this tragic battered fighter momentarily playful and innocent as a child. Manuel seemed to be as loose in the dugout last night as Brando was during the glove scene, and you can’t help but wonder if such a playful approach to a pressurized moment helped bolster the ridiculous poise of Phillies ace (and stunt-fielder worthy of the Indianapolis Clowns, the King and His Court, and his namesake and fellow lefty Bill Lee) Cliff Lee as he mowed down the previously unstoppable Yankees.
4. Charlie Manuel was, is, and always will be a hitter. This was the theory put forth by color commentator Tim McCarver as he noticed the glove. I tend toward this explanation, too. If you had ever had a period in your life when you bashed balls over the fence, you’d probably feel that power was always inside you, somewhere, no matter how old you got.
Charlie Manuel did his slugging in the minors (in his second-to-last year as a pro he pounded 30 homers and drove in 102 runs at Albuquerque), as did the man shown here, Danny Ozark, arguably the most successful manager in Phillies history before Manuel’s time. As the back of the 1978 card above relates, before Ozark led the Phillies to two 100-plus win seasons and three division titles during the 1970s, he played for twenty years in the minor leagues, hitting 238 home runs, including 31 as a 23-year-old in Abiline, and 32 as a 33-year-old in Wichita Falls.
The undeniable success of Ozark and Manuel, neither of whom ever got any buzz as a baseball genius (Manuel seems most often to be portrayed as a bumpkin, while Ozark gained far less attention for his winning ways than for his hilarious baseball-related utterances), raises the question of whether a slugger might make an inherently good manager. If so, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom on the matter, which tends to celebrate former scrappy infielder types, such as Leo Durocher and Billy Martin, the idea being that because they couldn’t smash a ball several hundred feet they had to learn how to use their mind to get an advantage during their playing days, and so they developed a better overall sense for the game. (Former catchers are also the beneficiaries of this kind of positive stereotyping. Three of the final four managers in the playoffs this year were catchers, Manuel being the exception–and the one who has gotten the least consideration as a brainy managerial maestro.)
The slugger, on the other hand, knows how to slug. And isn’t that the rarest thing in baseball to know about? Someone who has bashed home runs on a professional level must have some advantage that isn’t much talked about when discussing the factors that make up a good manager. Maybe they know that staying loose helps. Maybe it’s that they simply value the importance of slugging: They let their sluggers slug. Along those lines, I heard recently—I think it was during the radio pregame of an NLCS game—that Billy Beane, the Moneyball-inspiring general manager of the A’s, once played for Manuel during Beane’s minor league playing career, and that Beane has said that Manuel is the best manager he’s ever been around. I wish I could find a quote to confirm this, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard. It makes some sense. Manuel’s teams don’t bunt much, and though they steal bases, they make sure to do so in optimal situations, their success rate well above the level needed to make the stolen base a useful tool.
Don’t bunt. Don’t take unnecessary risks on the basepaths. Never take the batting glove off a slugger’s hand.