Manuel: The spirit moves him

Jerry Manuel got the telephone call from White Sox General Manager Ron Schueler on a Monday in November. He was asked if he wanted to be considered for the team's managerial opening, with the option to interview that Thursday or Friday.

Manuel had been preparing a lifetime for this chance, but he nevertheless put it off until Friday. He wanted time to fully prepare.

On that Tuesday, Manuel organized his thoughts and spent time at his desk, preparing outlines to show how he would run a baseball team. On Wednesday, the born-again Christian began to prepare his soul.

"Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were days of fasting and prayer," Manuel said last week.

He appeared truly to be a man at peace during a three-hour conversation in the family room of his comfortable house, at times actually curling up on his couch.

At the Dec. 4 news conference to announce Manuel's hiring as the White Sox's 36th manager, Schueler recalled that "the room lit up" when Manuel walked into his hotel suite for the initial interview. Manuel believes that first impression was the result of answered prayers.

"It is my belief that was spiritual," Manuel said. "When I went in there, I had a plan. God gave me a plan."

Manuel, 43, a career .150 hitter in the major leagues who spent the last seven years as a coach for Felipe Alou with the Montreal Expos and Jim Leyland with the Florida Marlins, returns to the only organization ever to give him a pink slip. He was fired from a scouting job in the winter of 1985-86 by then-Sox GM Ken Harrelson.

Manuel wanted this job in the worst way. But he didn't want it just for the usual reasons of ambition, money or ego. He wanted it because he believes he has been prepared thoroughly to succeed. And by winning in a market as large as Chicago's, with a franchise that hasn't been to a World Series since 1959, he plans to be a positive role model for his fellow Christians and African-Americans.

There is both order and serenity in the two-story house on a sandy road on the western outskirts of West Palm Beach, Fla., where the Manuels have lived for a decade. It is decorated with antiques and collectibles, with the most prominent baseball item a poster commemorating the old Negro leagues. There are computers for the children to do their schoolwork and a swimming pool and two basketball goals outside among the tall pines. The only disturbance is a telephone that seems perpetually ringing.

Yet Renette Manuel confidently declares the couple officially in the market for a home in Chicago. In doing this, she would seem to overlook the average shelf life of recent Sox managers Jim Fregosi, Jeff Torborg, Gene Lamont and Terry Bevington. She believes it will be different for her husband.

Both Manuels are interested to hear about DuPage County, yet Renette has her heart set on something closer to Comiskey Park. She hasn't yet explored farther south than 35th Street, but a recent newspaper article about the revitalization of Kenwood intrigued her.

"We came here because of a job," she said. "Neither of us had family here. There has been a lot of growth in our family here, but the season here has ended. It's time to move on. I look forward with great anticipation to making the move to Chicago."

She expects to make a difference in the lives of many people she has yet to meet.

"The word of God says God has a plan for you," Renette said. "I know we had to be qualified for this, I know (Jerry) had to be good at what he does. But there's a responsibility there. We are ready for that responsibility."

Commitment.

More than any other word, that's the one that pops up the most during a long conversation with Jerry Manuel. He uses it to describe his marriage, his religion and his management philosophies.

In professional sports, where backup players sometimes can earn more than their bosses, many coaches and managers tiptoe around the tough stuff. But Manuel wants it to be known upfront that he will place demands on all of his players, including batting champ Frank Thomas and Albert Belle.

"Commitment means changes, and sometimes change is uncomfortable," Manuel said. "If you're going to be committed to winning a world championship, you have to be willing to change, because (the current White Sox players) haven't won one."

Manuel believes in a team concept of baseball, with an emphasis on fielders who turn double plays, hitters who put the ball in play and runners who take the extra base. Among the messages he will preach this spring: for Ray Durham to take more pitches and stop swinging for the fences, for Mike Cameron to cut down on his strikeouts and for the lumbering Thomas to be more aggressive going from first to third.

"I'll tell guys I'm not here to challenge you; I'm here to change you," Manuel said. "Challenge is a mind thing. Change is from the heart. If you can get it in your heart, you can change."

Manuel's willingness to demand change goes against the "I'm OK/You're OK" flow of society. Many coaches are uncomfortable suggesting players at the top tier of their sports should consider major alterations to the approach or techniques that have brought them some success in the past.

"Not me," Manuel said. "I'm here to change them. I'm here to change their hearts to the commitment it takes to win a championship, and it's going to be uncomfortable for a while."

Tough year; great year

Manuel's own comfort zone was shattered one cold day last April. He was at Wrigley Field with the Marlins, preparing to play the Cubs in their home opener. He received word that his 72-year-old father, Lorenzo, had suffered a massive stroke at his home in Sacramento.

So would begin the most eventful--and bittersweet--year of Manuel's life. In a period of 40 days, he won a World Series, lost a father, was rejected as a managerial candidate in one place and hired as a manager in another. There's no question which of these events he felt the most deeply.

"I still grieve today about my dad," Manuel said. "I had never felt the sting of death to someone close to me before. But that's where my faith comes in. I know that God wouldn't put more on me than I can handle. I knew I would be able to move on, to progress."

Lorenzo Manuel was an able man. He not only built the family's home in the southeast Georgia town of Cecil, but if the legend is correct, he engineered the county's first indoor plumbing. He and Mildred had seven children, with Jerry the fifth oldest.

Jerry came along too late to see it for himself, but he loves to listen to older relatives tell stories about his father's ability as a pitcher.

"He played against some Negro league teams when they barnstormed through the South," Manuel said. "Those games were a big thing then. They would play on a Sunday afternoon, and everybody in town came. He was known to be quite a pitcher. He could put the ball anywhere you wanted him to put it."

To support his family, Lorenzo Manuel was a cook in the Air Force. He gradually worked his way across the United States, moving to a base in Amarillo, Texas, then another in Sacramento. That's where Jerry met Renette. He was a three-sport athlete--rejecting scholarship offers from Notre Dame and other football powers after being picked by the Detroit Tigers in the 1972 baseball draft--and she was a cheerleader.

"I thought he was kind of cocky, actually," Renette said. "He was very popular. But I realized later, as I watched him, that he wasn't cocky, he is just a confident person. He carried himself with an unusual air of confidence."

Manuel was also unusually interested in matters of the spirit. He says his father, a deacon in his church in Georgia, instilled in him "the genesis" of his Christian beliefs. But Manuel spent years searching for a religion that would fit him as naturally as one of his well-oiled infielder's gloves.

Manuel studied the Nation of Islam as a Black Muslim. He practiced Hinduism as a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi. He still watches the movie "Gandhi" at least once a year and counts Gandhi alongside Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King as among the most powerful influences on his life. Yet he kept searching.

"I believe (organized) religion can be bondage," Manuel said. "It is not freedom in religion, it is bondage. That was not what I was looking for. What I was looking for was a relationship."

Manuel says he didn't find the peace he was pursuing until 1984, when he accepted Christ as his savior. Renette had gone through her own born-again experience three years earlier. They attend the same non-denominational church and share the same Christian lifestyle.

"We know where we get our strength from, and we know who to point each other to," Renette said. "God is as much a part of our life as we are."

Renette credits the shared belief in God for the couple's marriage having survived for almost 25 years. They have raised four children while enduring the chaotic lifestyle that comes with professional baseball.

The oldest, Angela, is a fifth-year sprinter at Oral Roberts University and is married to Montreal Expos outfielder Rondell White. The youngest, Natalie, is a 6th grader with a love for soccer. In between the bookend girls are two boys--Jerry Jr., a Florida A&M junior who plays baseball, and Anthony, a 10th grader.

The Manuels have lived in only three houses but have had "a lot of addresses," Renette said. The six-year stint in Montreal coaching for Alou has been the longest stop of Manuel's career.

"I don't tell anybody it's easy," Renette said. "We're fighters, and we're committed. We have values, guidelines, that we don't compromise."

After clinging to a diminished life through the summer, Lorenzo Manuel died Oct. 29 (Jerry's mother, Mildred, suffered a heart attack last week but is expected to recover). That was three days after the Marlins won the World Series.

In one of their last conversations, Manuel told his father he had been asked to interview for a job as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' first manager. He also passed along a rumor that he was under consideration by the White Sox.

"He kind of put his hands together and moved his thumbs a little bit," Manuel said. "That was all he could move. I felt then that he knew that was where I wanted to be, in Chicago."

Manuel didn't believe he was a serious candidate with the Devil Rays. Nevertheless, he impressed General Manager Chuck LaMar enough in his initial interview that he was one of five finalists asked back for a second meeting. He traveled directly from his father's funeral to the Tampa airport, where he met with owner Vince Naimoli, LaMar and others on the Devil Rays' search committee.

"Jerry Manuel could not have been more impressive in the interview process," LaMar said. "There's an air of class and dignity surrounding Jerry that is hard to put into words. When you're around him, the more you're around him, the more you know he's going to treat people in a professional yet very fair way. . . . With Jerry, the players and staff will know what they're going to get day in and day out."

Manuel knew that whichever candidate was hired would have to throw himself immediately into the process of helping put together and promote the new American League team. The expansion draft was less than a week away.

"I told (Renette) I didn't know if I was mentally ready to do that," Manuel said. "At that time, I was very drained. I was empty, but at the same time I felt very good about what went on in the interview."

Manuel hadn't been home long before he got a call from LaMar. He told him that the Devil Rays had decided to hire Florida pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

"It was almost a relief," Manuel said. "I was sad in a way that I didn't get it, but on the other hand I was relieved. I was praying and hoping the White Sox would give me an interview. After I didn't get the Tampa job, Jim Leyland called, Felipe called. They both said it took them six, seven, eight interviews (to get hired). I knew it would not take me that long if somebody considered me a candidate, because I was ready."

Major impact

Like Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson and Tony La Russa before him, Manuel hopes to have an impact as a manager that eluded him as a player.

When he was drafted in 1972, Manuel was rated a hotter property than catcher Gary Carter, then-infielder Chet Lemon, second baseman Willie Randolph and pitchers Dennis Eckersley, Dennis Leonard and John Candelaria--all of whom were drafted with subsequent picks. Yet 14 professional seasons yielded only 127 at-bats in 96 major-league games with the Tigers, Expos and San Diego Padres.

"When I was in Triple A, I was a good defensive player and clutch hitter," Manuel said. "I was always able to drive in big runs. When I went to the big leagues, I wasn't a good hitter at all. It didn't matter that I was for some reason blessed with the ability to hit when the game is on the line. When you get to the big-league level, a guy with my ability, they have a guy to pinch-hit for you."

Manuel reached Triple-A Evansville in his third minor-league season. But he would spend parts of the next six seasons playing there, helping a team managed by Leyland win the American Association title in 1979. He was passed on the way to a long career at Tiger Stadium by second baseman Lou Whitaker, who came in the 1975 draft, and shortstop Alan Trammell, who followed a year later.

"Those guys were extraordinary players," Manuel said. "I was a guy who was hoping to get a chance. But I loved to play baseball and I liked Evansville."

Manuel started the 1981 season with the Expos but hurt his left knee on May 1, blocking Mike Scioscia off the bag on a hard slide into second base. He would be out until September but earned a spot on manager Jim Fanning's postseason roster.

Despite his lack of playing time throughout the season, it was Manuel--and not teammates Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Larry Parrish or Warren Cromartie--who called a team meeting before the strike-created divisional series against Philadelphia.

"Manager Dallas Green had come out with a statement that the Montreal Expos would choke," Manuel said. "I said, `That guy's not going to come here and tell us we're going to choke, not when we're playing in our back yard.' "

Manuel scored a bull's-eye.

"He's an intense competitor," said former Expos teammate Wallace Johnson, whom Manuel hired to be his third-base coach. "If you have a guy you don't expect to be real vocal, and all of a sudden he becomes vocal, that catches your attention. It caught on with the everyday players and became a real us-against-them approach."

Montreal won that series three games to two but missed a trip to the World Series by the narrowest of margins. Los Angeles won the deciding game of the National League Championship Series 2-1 on Rick Monday's two-out home run in the ninth inning.

Shining moment

Sixteen years later, Manuel finally made it to the World Series. He was standing next to Leyland when Edgar Renteria singled off Cleveland's Charles Nagy in the 11th inning of Game 7, giving the Marlins a 3-2 victory in a game in which they had trailed until the ninth.

As Leyland's bench coach, Manuel proposed some of the moves that would lead Florida to its emotional world championship.

"I don't think a lot of people realize what a bench coach's job is," Leyland said. "Some (managers) do it differently, but I feel very comfortable having other people suggest changes. Jerry is a very quick, very bright guy. I think the people in Chicago are going to love him."

During a three-day break before the World Series, Leyland approached Manuel with what he called "a very critical mission." He wanted him to talk to left-fielder Moises Alou about his approach. Alou had contributed to the Marlins' difficulty in scoring runs against San Francisco and Atlanta, batting .138 with no home runs in his first nine postseason games.

Manuel, who was familiar with Alou from Montreal, essentially told his former manager's son to get serious. Alou responded with a three-run homer off Orel Hershiser in Florida's 7-4 victory in Game 1, added two doubles in a 6-1 loss in Game 2 and a too-little, too-late homer in a 10-3 loss in Game 4.

With the series tied two games apiece, Alou looked bad in his first two at-bats against Hershiser in Game 5, which Cleveland led 4-2. After Hershiser struck out Alou flailing at off-the-plate junk, Manuel walked down the bench, looked his project in the eye and told him he would have to "be a hitter" to beat Hershiser.

In Alou's next at-bat, with two on and two out, he took a curveball in the dirt for ball one. He looked directly into the dugout at Manuel, nodded his head, then worked the count to 2-1. He drove a long home run to left field, putting the Marlins ahead.

Three days later, Alou was 0 for 3 when he came to bat against Jose Mesa in the ninth inning of Game 7. He singled to left field to start the game-tying rally. Call this Manuel's mission possible.

"He helped all the guys all along," Leyland said. "Jerry was close to Moises in Montreal. He knew what made Moises go, more than the rest of us. He felt very comfortable with him."

Manuel worked to build relationships with all of the Florida players, including high-maintenance right-fielder Gary Sheffield. He had done the same during his brief tenure as a minor-league manager.

Manuel succeeded in both seasons he ran Montreal farm teams, leading Double-A Jacksonville to an 84-60 record in 1990 and getting Triple-A Indianapolis off to a 28-22 start before being promoted to join Tom Runnells' staff when Expos manager Buck Rodgers was fired two months into the '91 season.

"He did a good job for us," said Florida GM Dave Dombrowski, who came to the Marlins from the Expos. "He showed leadership capability. He had some good players on his team, but he had a great way of communicating with them, getting through to them. He had a good balance of teaching but retaining the posture of an authority figure, which is necessary for the job."

Manuel's two teams included future major-leaguers Wil Cordero, Bret Barberie, Archi Cianfrocco, Matt Stairs, Brian Barnes, Jeff Fassero, Mel Rojas and Kent Bottenfield. His pitching staff at Jacksonville led the Southern League with a 3.17 earned-run average and was the only team in the league (and one of only two at any level of pro ball that season) to have five pitchers with at least five saves apiece.

Bottenfield, now a reliever with the Cubs, says he and other players who have come into contact with Manuel have long believed he would succeed as a manager in the big leagues.

"Jerry's a manager who not only cares about the players on the field but just as much off the field," Bottenfield said. "He treats his team like a family. I can't say that enough. He's not in it just for himself. That tends to be pretty rare in this business."

Manuel believed he was ready to manage in the major leagues after leaving Indianapolis. But he now says it was God's plan to "plant" him alongside Felipe Alou and Leyland. Those teams combined for a .553 winning percentage (501-405) that likely would have been higher had Montreal not lost Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill, John Wetteland and others to free agency or financially motivated trades.

Manuel knows he will face another unique set of circumstances in Chicago. After beefing up for an unsuccessful run at an AL Central title, the Sox could open this year with a payroll that is $20 million lower than the $54.3 million investment they had in salaries on Opening Day last year.

Manuel sees no reason why the management style that was reinforced by the years working alongside the compassionate Alou and the hard-driving Leyland won't work on the South Side of Chicago. The personal touch, he has found, is always welcome.

"I've never had to push my team through the wall," Manuel said. "I want my team to run through the wall without having to be pushed."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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