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A stroke took Charlie Manuel’s words away. Baseball is giving them back
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A stroke took Charlie Manuel’s words away. Baseball is giving them back

A stroke took Charlie Manuel’s words away. Baseball is giving them back

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When Charlie Manuel began to speak again, he could not talk. It had been five days since his stroke. His heart was better. He’d regain the feeling in his right side with time. But, last September, there were no words.

“I knew what I wanted to say,” Manuel said months later. “That really gets to you. You know what to say and you can’t say it.”

Manuel is the ultimate baseball lifer, with more than six decades in the game. The Phillies’ all-time winningest manager, known for his love of hitting, trademark malapropisms and colorful language, was always most at home behind the batting cage. Five months after the Phillies fired him as manager in 2013, they hired him as an advisor to the front office. He hadn’t yet budged. The role is now largely ceremonial, but Manuel had never viewed it that way. “I’m real, for one thing,” Manuel said. “I’m honest.” He was a constant at spring training. He had bullied his way through constant health problems, to hell and back in 80 years. This was different.

The stroke had damaged a specific part of his brain that controls language expression; the doctors diagnosed Manuel with expressive aphasia and dysarthria. It was the most demoralized and discouraged his wife, Missy, had ever seen him. He exists to talk hitting and, now, he could not form a complete sentence. He did not want visitors. He would not talk on the phone.

“Sixty-one years in baseball and this is how I’m going out,” Charlie told his wife.

“You’re not going anywhere yet,” Missy said.

The critical-care team at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center had intervened during a routine cardiac catheterization on Sept. 16. They had to move fast: Manuel was having a stroke. “It looked like a TV show,” Missy said. “And I’m just running, trying to keep up with them.” Charlie was awake. He squeezed Missy’s hand.

The surgeon had inserted one stent into Manuel’s heart; another 45-minute procedure followed to remove the clot that caused the stroke. The doctors were hopeful he’d recover, but they were not certain how much damage the stroke had inflicted. “Time is brain,” they kept telling Missy. The Phillies released a 62-word statement asking for “thoughts and prayers at this time.”

Missy was both terrified and optimistic.

So, she turned on the Phillies on an iPad in Charlie’s hospital room. Days became weeks. The doctors tested his cognition. If there was any doubt, Missy told them, they should come by when the Phillies were playing. It might not have always sounded like Charlie, but he was in there.

“He was second-guessing,” Missy said. “He was, you know, armchair managing. He was breaking down the pitcher, the hitter.”

The Phillies kept winning. Manuel was discharged from inpatient care during the National League Championship Series. He returned to his Winter Haven, Fla., home to watch the Phillies lose Game 6 and Game 7.

He was disappointed, but — even worse — the proper words weren’t there. It hit him, the gravity of this challenge he faced.

“I couldn’t curse,” Manuel said.

The twist is beautiful, and it’s something Manuel can appreciate. His folksy mannerisms were the subject of daily rants on 94.1 WIP while he managed the Phillies — before and after his World Series title. But he has become a larger-than-life figure in Philadelphia, a city that extends that status to few.

He was a .198 hitter in the majors, but his country accent and prodigious homers made him a folk hero as a player in Japan. He was the hitting whisperer to great Cleveland offenses but came to the Phillies as an outsider. He was an easy target for upset fans, then won five straight division titles from 2007-11. The Phillies haven’t won one since, and time has been good to Manuel’s legacy. Now, strangers are obligated to shout “Cholly!” when they see him. And, in the days after Manuel’s stroke, the sports-talk station invited callers to leave supportive messages. WIP sent Missy three large audio files. She played them to Charlie while they were in the hospital.

He smiled.

“I think that helped him a lot,” Missy said. “Just that encouragement from people — people from everywhere. And there are Phillies fans everywhere. Lots of them had had a stroke. A ton of speech therapists, and occupational therapists. I would just play them.”

But, for the first month, Manuel would not answer his phone. He was depressed. He did not sound like he should. “Sometimes I didn’t talk at all,” Manuel said. “I’d just go in my room and sit down.” Missy nudged him. One of the few people Charlie trusted, his old pitching coach Rich Dubee, drove 90 minutes to sit with him. Dubee could sense the concern.

“You know just by his mannerisms, he was aware that he wasn’t saying the right words sometimes,” Dubee said. “He was real conscious of that.”

Three months after the stroke, Manuel remained guarded. He started to emerge from that darkness in December. Missy brought him to visit some of the grandkids at the circus in Sarasota, Fla., and a few Phillies fans recognized Manuel. He’s always invited people into his orbit. It’s why he has achieved mythical status in Philly. It’s why people feel compelled to approach him.

At the circus, he took some photos.

“Did they know you had a stroke?” Missy asked.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t talk to them long enough.”

But she saw newfound confidence. Manuel had been so self-conscious with his speaking.

“I mean, it’s natural,” Manuel said. “I’m not upset or nothing. But what are we going to do about it?”

Charlie Manuel, here with one of his grandchildren, has been in professional baseball since 1963. (Courtesy of the Manuel family)

He finished his first speech therapy session in October feeling hopeful. “I enjoyed talking to you,” Manuel said to Pam Smith. “I think this is going to help.” Smith, a speech therapist at Winter Haven Hospital, thought Manuel was mild-mannered and quiet. At times the drills for word retrieval became tedious. Charlie was frustrated. But his demeanor changed whenever he talked about his interests.

“So,” Smith said, “one day I pulled out some baseball trivia. Now there’s the ticket.”

Most stroke patients will not fully return to their previous state, Smith said. There will be a residual deficit in Manuel’s speech. This has prompted Manuel to joke — it’s on a tee for him. Speech problem? This is how I’ve always sounded! He was never a grammar aficionado. He often misspoke when he managed. What angered him was someone conflating his sloppy communication skills for a lack of intelligence. He had his style and it was unmistakable.

He wanted it back.

“I go real fast,” Manuel told his therapist, “and I can’t remember the words.”

They made small progressions. They started to have fun with it. One day, they were working on his writing. That, too, was affected by the stroke. “We got off target with what we were really trying to write because Manuel wanted to be able to sign his name,” Smith said. “He wants to be able to sign baseball cards.” He practiced his autograph again and again. Manuel is at his sharpest when he’s talking hitting; Smith is his newest pupil.

Motivation is a powerful aid.

“That’s kind of a trick in therapy,” Smith said, “is to get somebody involved in something that they like.”

Back in October, the Phillies’ marketing staff did its part, making plans for Manuel to be at a World Series game, should the Phillies get there. The entire ballpark would go wild if he was on the field for a ceremonial first pitch six weeks after suffering a stroke.

Missy liked the idea. It could energize Charlie, who was feeling down. It was good to have a goal. He was less enthused about it. He would not have been able to throw the baseball. He was intimidated thinking about all of the people who would want to talk to him.

Two months later, Manuel laughed. “Ahh, I don’t know,” he said.

The objective is different now. Manuel still has a place in the team’s front office; his official title is senior advisor to the general manager. That entails scouting some amateur players and attending minor-league games to see the Phillies’ farm system. Manuel is determined to keep going.

“I could go fishing all I want,” Manuel said. “I could play golf all I want to. But, at the end of the day, I still like being around a baseball game.”

Sometimes he still stumbles now when he talks. He’ll miss a word. He’ll pause when he does not have the right word. He’ll mutter the wrong word. He does not always sound like he did because the muscles he uses for speech were weakened by the stroke. But some stroke patients with aphasia cannot talk at all. His brain is solving some of the puzzles.

“He’s getting back to where Chuck was Chuck,” Dubee said.

Manuel did something last month that reassured Missy. He had that tone again. He was fixated on someone’s swing. He knew how to cure it. (The player is not on the Phillies, so Manuel would rather keep it classified.) For days, it’s all he talked about. Missy loved it.

Then Manuel startled Smith, his therapist. “I have to be talking better by spring training,” he said.

That’s the goal.

“Yeah, I want to come,” Manuel said. “If the Phillies want me to come to spring training, I’ll come to spring training… (But) because I want to come doesn’t mean I can. I’ll do what I am supposed to do.”

In one recent therapy session with Smith, he shared a secret. A long time ago, Manuel wrote something. He reads it every so often.

“You wrote a poem?” Smith said.

Manuel did — with some help. It’s from the early ’70s when he rode the bench with the Minnesota Twins. He called it, “My Most Memorable Day.” In it, “some hillbilly hitting .182” pinch hits for his idol, Harmon Killebrew. Manuel faces Jim Palmer and he crushes a homer.

The roar from the stands gave a deafening scream…
Then Charlie fell out of bed, it was only a dream.

For decades, he recited it by memory. He felt bad because he had to read it from a piece of paper for Smith. He became emotional and the words were harder to form. Smith did not interrupt. “He wants to say it right,” Smith said. He kept going.

“I just thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard,” Smith said. “The funny thing is, yeah, he lights up when he talks about baseball. He has a twinkle in his eye.”

He monitors his heart rate. He takes three-mile walks through the neighborhood. He can curse again. He wants to get back to bench pressing.

“Actually,” Manuel said, “I want to do it just to see if I can do it.”

“That’s the whole thing,” Missy said. “A lot of this, he does it to prove to himself he can do it.”

Charlie glanced at Missy.

“I’ll put it to you like this: I’m going to always be in baseball,” Manuel said. “I will always be in baseball.”

On Thursday, Manuel turns 80. “I don’t want a party,” he said. “I’m living, that’s a party. I don’t do parties. My life has been a party.” And there is something else.

Pitchers and catchers report in 43 days.

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic;  Photo: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)