ATLANTA — When the Philadelphia Phillies made the decision Friday to relieve manager Charlie Manuel of his duties and replace him with third base coach Ryne Sandberg, in a way it closed a chapter in Phillies’ history. A long, and largely successful chapter.
And one member of the Washington Nationals was directly affected by Manuel’s tenure.
Jayson Werth was reflective and grateful on Friday as he talked about the impact Manuel had on him and his career. He called him, with respect to Davey Johnson, “The best manager I ever played for.”
“I thought he deserved better,” Werth said. “I owe him a lot. I took a lot for me to win him over, but once he put me in there, he believed in me as much if not more than anyone I’ve ever played for. He was the one that kind of pushed me to become the player I became.”
Werth spent four season in Philadelphia under Manuel’s watch. He came in as a player who’d missed the entire previous season with an injury, and was brought in by the general manager at the time, Pat Gillick.
He had to earn everything he got from Manuel, he said, and the two had many battles about his playing time. Eventually, Werth went from being a bench player, to a platoon player, to a key figure in Philadelphia’s World Series win, and their two playoff seasons that followed.
Those conversations, of which Werth said there were 10 or 15, included Manuel’s brutally honest assessments of him as a player, which were difficult for Werth to hear. Once, in 2007, Werth left a copy of his highlight tape from his time with the Dodgers on Manuel’s desk. Manuel loved to tell the story, Werth said, because “he thought it was funny that I’d have the (guts) to come in there and do it.”
Ultimately, the conversations were important in Werth’s development as a player.
“We argued quite a bit about my playing time, especially in ‘07 and then again in ‘08 when I was in a platoon,” Werth said. “We would go back and forth about playing time and why I wasn’t playing. He would be very frank with me about why he wasn’t playing me and where he thought I was as a player. That pissed me off. That drove me to be better. I didn’t like it, by any means, but when the guy who writes the lineup up is telling you you’re not good enough to play, not only will it drive you, but some people it might drive to quit. It’s not an easy conversation to sit there and listen to somebody, your boss basically, tell you that you suck, many times.
“We were in Oakland (in June of 2008) and I went in and again got into it with him about playing time. He told me, I think fed up with me being in there he was like ‘I’m going to give you a chance, this is your last chance. If you don’t hit righties, this is it,’ which I always disagreed with him. I’m like ‘The righties you’re giving me are the guys in the 8th and 9th off the bench, that’s really not fair to me.’ Didn’t really change his mind at all.
“Finally went in there again and hashed it out a little bit and he said he was going to give me an opportunity but it’s going to be my last chance. I remember he said ‘You don’t start hitting righties, boy, something something something.’ I guess I started hitting righties. Those are the type of conversations that either make or break you. Really they made me. They turned me into the type of player I am.”
Werth eventually became one of the top free agents on the market after the 2010 season, and the Nationals spent $126 million to make him one of the cornerstones of their franchise, their first real free agent investment. While he closed his own chapter with the Phillies long ago, he credits Manuel, and former teammates Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley for helping him become the guy who a team would want to invest that kind of money in, and a team leader.
“Those guys were strong personalities, kind of lead by example, you know?” he said. “I think if Charlie could adopt Chase Utley I think he probably would. He loves him that much. He loves the way he plays. That was the mantra there. Chase was the model of who Charlie really wanted everybody to play like. Plays hard, plays the right way, keeps his mouth shut. Just fall in line. It wasn’t that hard.”
Werth said he hadn’t spoken to any of his former teammates on Friday, figuring it was probably a tough day for them as Manuel was ushered out in an emotional press conference. But it was obvious from his demeanor and the way he told stories about Manuel that he had genuine affection for him, and for his time under his tutelage.
He said Manuel once gathered his team before the 2008 World Series and told a story about his appearance in an All-Star football game. Manuel had put together a terrific game, and the coach told him “Take your helmet off, son. Let the people see you.” Manuel told him “Where I come from, we keep our helmets on.” His point was simple: stay focused. Don’t let the outside demands take away from your task at hand, the quest for a World Series championship.
Werth hit .444 in that World Series.
“That’s how he is,” Werth said, admitting he was not surprised to see Manuel show up at the press conference about his departure. “If you perform for him, he’s going to like you. That’s how this business is. This is a cutthroat business. The guy gets whacked today. It (stinks).
“He had a knack for getting the last word in. He was tough. Those conversations we had, I usually didn’t win those. I said what I had to say, but in the end, I left. All good things come to an end. Today was one of those times.”