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Mackanin right man for mess of a Phillies job

Longtime baseball man Pete Mackanin took over as manager when Ryne Sandberg resigned. He seems to have the temperament for it.

Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Pete Mackanin before a game against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. (Bill Streicher/USA Today)
Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Pete Mackanin before a game against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. (Bill Streicher/USA Today)Read more(Bill Streicher/USA Today)

ATLANTA - If you have ever awoken to a ruptured septic tank, then you know what Pete Mackanin is wading through every day.

He is the interim manager of a Phillies team comprised of rich, fading stars, desperate veterans and unseasoned young talent. Thanks to awful starting pitching, laughable offense and bad defense, the team is losing games with alarming efficiency.

Their manager, Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, quit on them 10 days ago.

Their general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., is in the final year of his deal, and it is he who will be blamed for the franchise's structural decay.

Their president, Pat Gillick, will be replaced in October by Andy MacPhail, who will spend the rest of this season deciding how to clean up the mess; Big Brother, if ever there was one.

It is a toxic environment.

Mackanin does not want to destabilize it further. Not yet, anyway.

"Everybody's into a certain program, and, to be honest with you, the guys are working," Mackanin said. "My job is to ease the transition to a new manager [next season]. If I feel like we're going backward, or we're stagnant, or giving up, then I would have a meeting. I don't feel that way. I like everything they're doing."

He has intimate perspective.

He was the Phillies' third base coach the past two seasons, his second run with the team as a coach. Fit, with a full head of steely gray hair, he looks a decade younger than a man a month way from his 64th birthday; a man in his 46th season in professional baseball. He will not act rashly.

As he spoke, Mackanin put down a half-finished crossword. It was yesterday morning, three hours before the Phillies would avoid a sweep by the Braves, but the clubhouse was peppy as players ate eggs and lounged on kitschy furniture.

Mackanin's yard is a mess but it's the kind of mess that takes a while to recede; even longer for the smell to go away. He might not be around to enjoy the cleanup, but he doesn't want to make it worse. Besides, it's not all bad:

"The young hitters are starting to show promise."

Third baseman Maikel Franco is making a run at rookie of the year. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is nearing .300.

Why change the dress code or mix up the batting-practice groups and risk disrupting their grooves?

The Phillies are in the middle of their longest stretch away from Citizens Bank Park: three games into a 10-game road trip, combined with four days off for the All-Star break. Mackanin will stay the course until they reconvene.

"After the All-Star break, once everything is beyond us, we're going to basically start new," Mackanin said. "There might be a few things I might address. Maybe."

Maybe not.

More than any other sport, baseball players crave routines. You might argue that a 28-56 record and seven wins in their last 30 games cries out for change, but consider Mackanin's roster.

The Phillies have one veteran starter, Cole Hamels, who isn't hurt and/or horrible. Six of the eight regulars have never been everyday major league players at their positions before: Franco, Hernandez, shortstop Freddy Galvis, leftfielder Cody Asche, centerfielder Odubel Herrera and catcher Cameron Rupp, who, for the moment, is playing in front of Carlos Ruiz.

This is Mackanin's third stint as an interim manager; he took over in September 2005 for Lloyd McClendon in Pittsburgh, then, in 2007, he succeeded Jerry Narron in Cincinnati for three months.

He knows the drill.

Oh, there might be a guy here or there who wears the wrong gear at batting practice, or a guy who doesn't run out a fly ball, or a guy who shows up at the ballpark a minute or two late, but that's just maintenance, resolved with a quick word in private.

"There are things more subtle that I've addressed. I've talked to a few players about what I'd like them to do," Mackanin said. "Everybody works here; moreso than any other team I've ever been on."

Mackanin did inherit a club of high-character veterans who set superb examples.

Chase Utley is on the disabled list with an ankle injury; still, he spent an hour Friday watching video. That sort of professionalism is priceless.

Utley isn't on the field, though. The absence of experience requires constant vigilance.

To wit: Bench coach Larry Bowa can produce a piercing whistle; Mackanin cannot. The Phillies infielders are positioned before every batter, but, too often, they will fail to adjust their positioning as the count changes. When a fast hitter gets a strike or two on him, the infielders might continue to play close, in case he bunts.

That's when Mackanin says, "Larry, whistle for me."

The fielder looks over, and is repositioned.

"These guys are just not used to the sophisticated level we play at," Mackanin said.

The only way to get used to it is to live it, and live it the right way, every day.

Mackanin played nearly nine major league seasons, a part-time player with four franchises, including the ascending Phillies in 1978 and '79. He spent parts of 10 seasons playing in the minors, though. This is his 13th season managing or coaching in the majors, which means he spent more than half of his tenure as a pro coach and manager elsewhere, including Venezuela.

Mackanin is reverent every time he enters a big-league ballpark. He asks the same of his players.

"My perception of the major leagues is, this is the Vatican. These are the cathedrals of baseball. I expect them to respect the game," said Mackanin, a straight shooter who understands this generation's urge for individuality. "I don't care if you have a beard or a mustache, earrings - I don't care. Just play the right way."

And only concern yourself with yourself.

"Don't show up late and tell me, 'The other guy was late.' Don't not hustle and say, 'You didn't say anything to Joe Bag-o-Donuts,' " Mackanin said. "I ask them, 'What does that have to do with you? Know what your role is. Don't worry about the future. Don't worry about the money. Worry about playing the game and working at it.' "

At that moment Amaro walked to Mackanin's office and stood outside. It was time for their meeting - a meeting that will happen daily until October, when both men might be let go by MacPhail. Yesterday, Mackanin hadn't thought much further ahead than getting Hamels some run support in his 17th start of the season.

"I'm not here to make my mark on this team," Mackanin said. "I'm not here to make sweeping changes."

Mackanin is here to put on his boots and minimize the damage.

It's a dirty job, but he's the right man to do it.

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch