First of three parts.
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - The temperature hovered around the freezing point in central Florida on Thursday morning. It was cold enough to threaten local strawberry crops. Cold enough to see your breath. Cold enough to cancel Charlie Manuel's round of golf.
"Shoot," Manuel tells a visitor from Philadelphia. "I was looking forward to getting out there and whooping your [butt]."
Manuel says his game isn't all that sharp these days. He hasn't had time to play much. He was busy winning a World Series in the fall, and the victory lap – appearances, banquets, media obligations - has stretched well into the winter.
Manuel isn't complaining, though. He has enjoyed every sip of this intoxicating off-season cocktail, even if he is lucky he didn't develop carpal tunnel syndrome signing thousands of autographs on pictures and other pieces of championship memorabilia.
Everyone wants a piece of the manager who led the Phillies to their first World Series title in 28 years - HBO spent last weekend filming a feature on Manuel - but it's almost time to start looking ahead because spring training begins Saturday.
"It's been wonderful," Missy Martin, Manuel's longtime companion, says of the hectic off-season spent in the Philadelphia area and Florida. "Eating out around Philadelphia, walking the street, people come up and just say, 'Thank you.' And the way they say it is so heartfelt. It amazes us. It's so sincere. You can really tell how much it meant to them."
Martin, 52, is standing on the edge of Lake Howard, across the street from the small home she and Manuel have been living in while their primary residence a few miles away is renovated. Her eyes fill with tears as she recalls that special night when the Phillies hoisted the World Series trophy and Manuel told the world, "Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans."
"I cried when he said that," she says. "I still get chills thinking about it. And the beautiful thing is he meant that so sincerely. It was from his heart. I think his feeling was he and the team worked hard so you could enjoy this.
"I was happy for Charlie because he achieved the goal he had when he took the job. He was happy for the fans."
Besides not getting cleaned and pressed on the golf course by that visitor from Philadelphia, there's one other benefit to the cold weather that claimed Manuel's round of golf. He and Martin have time to check on renovations at their primary home across town.
Try a reconstruction.
The house was gutted last summer. When the project is completed later this year, Manuel says there will be about 4,000 square feet of living space.
In December, Manuel, 65, received a contract extension, guaranteeing him a total of $5.5 million through 2011. When he signed the new deal, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. joked that Manuel could use it on the new house, but the project was in the works long before the Phillies won the World Series.
"We were talking about moving, but we like it here," Manuel says. "It's a good neighborhood and I like the golf course."
The couple rents a home in New Jersey during the season.
"If I had known I'd be there that long I would have bought a place, but you're always firing me," Manuel says with a laugh to the visitor, a reporter from Philadelphia.
Manuel and Martin lead their visitor to the backyard, where a spot is being prepared for an outdoor barbecue area.
"Charlie loves to cook in the off-season," Martin says.
"Ribs," he says, proudly.
"He can cook some ribs," Martin confirmed with wide eyes.
"Sometimes I put a dry rub on them," Manuel says. "Sometimes I use sauce."
Care to divulge any recipes?
"I like to buy a simple sauce and add to it," Manuel says. "Keep tasting it until I like it."
Like tweaking a team until it's ready to win?
"Exactly, son," Manuel says.
Back inside, Manuel points to an area that will become his den. Martin recently purchased for him a framed picture of New York Yankees greats Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. The picture will one day hang on the wall in the den.
Martin bought the picture at an auction in York, Pa. She and Manuel recently watched a televised replay of Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Billy Martin and Mantle played in the game. Billy Martin went on to become Manuel's first big-league manager, with the 1969 Minnesota Twins. After hearing Manuel tell stories about his former skipper and Mantle, Martin just had to buy the picture for him.
Manuel, a first-class raconteur, told of how Billy Martin bought him his first suit at a store in Cleveland in 1969.
"It cost $243," he says. "It was long and double-breasted. It looked like a confederate suit."
He kept on telling them.
Mantle retired in 1968. The year after, he came to Minnesota to visit Billy Martin. A big gang went out for dinner and a few drinks. The night was getting late, but The Mick, a legendary partier, wanted to stay out.
"Manuel," Twins manager Martin said, "Mickey doesn't want to go home. You stay. You won't be playing tomorrow."
When the night ended, Manuel took Mantle back to his apartment. They taped bedsheets on the curtainless windows and went to sleep.
"For years, every time Mickey saw me, he'd say, 'You get any curtains yet?' " Manuel says with a laugh.
There's one other piece of memorabilia that may end up in the den someday - the ball with which Brad Lidge recorded the final strikeout against Tampa Bay in the World Series. Lidge and catcher Carlos Ruiz presented it to Manuel after the win.
At first, Manuel is loath to talk about the ball.
"What ball?" he says, feigning ignorance. "I don't know where it is."
"It's not here," he says.
Finally, Manuel gives in.
"I've got the ball," he says. "The ball is mine. Lidge and Ruiz gave it to me. I took that as a great honor."
"I'm very happy to have it," he says. "It's the best thing I've gotten in my career."
Manuel and Martin are both cancer survivors. Both are divorced. He has two grown children; she has three. She is a Winter Haven native. They met 14 years ago, when her son attended a baseball clinic that Manuel ran during his time as Cleveland Indians hitting coach. The Indians formerly trained in Winter Haven.
Martin has overseen the reconstruction of the home. She is an avid reader and is excited about having a library.
And she has her eye on the perfect chandelier for the foyer. Right, Charlie?
"We're going to have to win a couple more World Series," he says with a laugh.
Manuel is one of two Phillies managers to win a World Series. Like Dallas Green, he will always have a spot in the pantheon of Philadelphia sporting legends. The fans confirmed that when they chanted "Char-lie . . . Char-lie . . . Char-lie" on the day of the Phils' championship parade.
Four years earlier, the fans were shouting something completely different. It has been well documented that Jim Leyland was the people's choice for the job. Manuel's hiring was greeted with a loud raspberry. You could have done better, the fans said. And besides, this Manuel guy talks funny.
Leyland, who wanted but was not offered the Phils' job, was named Detroit manager before the 2006 season and quickly led the Tigers to the World Series. The Tigers missed the playoffs in 2007 and finished last in the American League Central in 2008.
Meanwhile, Manuel's Phillies teams continued to ripen and won the National League East in 2007 and the Big One in 2008.
"I'm bigger than that," Manuel says. "I would never compare myself to another manager. I played against Jim Leyland in the minors. I have the utmost respect for him. He's a great baseball man. I understand why people wanted him. He won a World Series. He's a great name in baseball.
"But I've always had confidence in my ability, too. I've always had a saying that drives me, 'I'm better than no one, but no one is better than me.' That keeps me going."
Martin says the lack of public enthusiasm for Manuel's hiring and the outcry for Leyland never bothered Manuel. He had survived worse: The suicide of his father when he was a teenager, a heart attack and bout with cancer as an adult.
But the criticism bothered her. She stood by him through the heart attack and the removal of a cancerous tumor on his kidney. He stood by her when she beat breast cancer.
"I always knew if people got to know him, it would be nearly impossible not to like him," she says. "If you like the game and you like people, how can you not like Charlie Manuel? It bothered me that people were making judgments on him without knowing the content of his character."
Eventually, Martin stopped letting criticism of Manuel bother her. If it didn't bother him, why should it bother her?
"His whole life has been having to survive," Martin says. "When you put it in that perspective, what difference does it make if somebody on a talk show doesn't think you're doing a good job?"
Manuel, a native of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, was at first seen as a bit of a country bumpkin, not sophisticated enough for Philadelphia. He mangled some sentences at news conferences and spoke of being flustrated after a tough loss.
But there were always more wins than losses and when the Phils rallied to win the NL East for the first time in 14 years in 2007, Manuel got something that had long eluded him in Philadelphia.
It only grew in 2008 with winning the World Series.
"He says winning takes care of everything, and so it did," Martin says.
There's even a certain charm to his vocabulary now. After all, wasn't that Eagles season flustrating?
There could be more great words coming. Martin says Manuel has become more comfortable, more open to revealing himself as a person.
"At the beginning, I think he was editing himself," she says. "Slowly I see the layers being peeled back - more of a willingness to show who he is."
It started with winning.
"I always said, I've got to win," Manuel says. "I took the job because I thought we could win. People doubted me as a winner, but I always knew I was a winner."
The World Series trophy - and a winter filled with good feelings - is proof.
Spring training begins this week.
"Let's do it again," Charlie Manuel says.