Today’s Game: Charlie Manuel

All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

There’s a beautiful irony in that some of the greatest hitting coaches in baseball history — Charlie Lau, Walt Hriniak and Kevin Long, for example — couldn’t actually hit a lick themselves. Well, that’s probably an Alanis Morissette-level misuse of “irony,” because it actually makes perfect sense: Who's more likely to THINK more about hitting, the one hitting .200 and trying to stay in professional ball, or the one hitting .300 and looking to buy another Ferrari?

And beyond the thinking, who's more likely to know how to teach hitting, the god or the mortal? I’ve often told the story — perhaps it’s apocryphal, but I want to believe it — of the time when Braves pitching coach Bob Gibson approached Rick Mahler and ordered him to pound the fastball up and in to get the hitter off the plate, and then throw the devastating slider down and away. As Gibson stomped off, Mahler thought, “I don’t have a fastball OR a slider.”

Charlie Manuel could hit … but not major league pitching. From 1969 to 1975, Manuel bounced up and down between the majors and minors like he was being dribbled by Chris Paul, and it was amazing how well he hit in the minors and how dreadful he was in the big leagues. Baseball people sometimes call players like that Quad-A players; I don’t know if the Quad-A player is a unicorn or a penguin, but for Manual, the numbers were striking:

1970

— .329/.390/.657 in short stint in Evansville.

— .207/.320/.280 in short stint with Twins

1971

— .372./.462/.764 in Portland

— .125/.176/.188 in 18 games with Twins

1972

— .205/.233/.270 in 100-plus PAs with Twins

1973

— .275./.355/.484 in almost full season in Tacoma

1974

— .329/..433/.600 in Albuquerque

— One hit in three at-bats with Dodgers

1975

— .325/.414/.601 in Albuquerque

— .133/.133/.133 in 15 games with Dodgers

At this point, perhaps accepting that he was a Quad-A player, Manuel went looking for a Quad-A league — and he ended up in Japan. And he was a phenomenon. In those days, an American major leaguer, even a fleeting one, coming to play in Japan was national news. “I was a star before I ever got there,” Manuel told reporter Mandy Housenick. “They were talking about how good I was. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

But he was good. From 1977 to 1980, Manuel hit at least .312 every season and averaged 41 home runs, despite never playing in more than 128 games. He became the first American to win the MVP award in Japan. In 1980, he hit 48 homers in 118 games.

[caption id="attachment_23751" align="aligncenter" width="428"] Manuel won six division titles in 12 seasons as a manager, but did his best work as a hitting coach.[/caption]

Why couldn’t Manuel hit in the big leagues? Maybe it was a lack of opportunity (he got only 432 big league plate appearances, and they were scattered over six seasons). Maybe it was something mental. Here’s the thing, though: Nobody thought more about it than Manuel himself. Hitting had been his whole life. When he was a kid in West Virginia, he used to cut down tree branches into bats and use rocks as balls, and nothing ever mattered to him more than the sweet feeling of connecting cleanly.

I think that’s why he was a brilliant hitting coach. Manuel has that slow way of talking, and he says all sorts of quirky things, but the passion he feels for hitting, well, it pours out of him, and as we've begun to explore over at Passions in America, there's an almost magical transference that happens when someone's talking about a deep and abiding love and enthusiasm and zeal for something.

Manuel just infused his love of hitting into his disciples. When you hear Jim Thome or Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Howard talk about Manuel, you sense the depth of feeling there. He believed in them. He inspired them. Sure, he helped them break down their swings, and he might have taught them a thing or two: Manuel famously asked Thome to point the bat before each pitch the way Roy Hobbs does in The Natural. But more than that, he reminded them of what made them such good hitters in the first place. He spoke to them in the language of hitters.

The Hall of Fame doesn’t have a place for coaches (or scouts), and that feels to me like a void. You have some extraordinary figures, such as pitching coach Leo Mazzone or Charlie Lau, who had a huge impact. Manuel is like that. As a manager, well, he did manage the Phillies to five consecutive division titles, back-to-back pennants and a World Series, and he did win 90 games in back-to-back seasons in Cleveland. But it’s hard to see how Manuel’s managerial career was superior to, say, that of Cito Gaston or Dick Howser or Ralph Houk or Alvin Dark, who rarely or never get Hall of Fame mention, plus all those managers who do sometimes get talked about for the Hall, like Jim Leyland, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Martin or Tom Kelly.

Manuel could have a place in the as a hitting coach. He was one of the best ever.