This story begins on a warm day in June 1990, when the local media were summoned to Sky Sox Stadium for "an important announcement" halfway through the baseball season.
The news was legitimate: Officials from the Cleveland Indians, then the major-league parent club of the local franchise, announced a change in managers for the Sky Sox. That's when a low-key, drawling stranger walked in and introduced himself.
"Hi, I'm Charlie Manuel," he said with a distinct Virginia accent. "I guess I'm the new manager."
That day began what turned into a memorable relationship. Manuel finished the 1990 schedule and returned for two more years, guiding the Sky Sox to the playoffs all three seasons, still the only time that's happened in the team's two-plus decades here. And he capped it off perfectly, leading Colorado Springs to its first Pacific Coast League championship in 1992 with a roster that included such hitters as Jim Thome, Nelson Liriano, Donell Nixon, Alan Cockrell and Mike Aldrete, and pitchers including Denis Boucher, Jeff Shaw, Eric Bell, Mike Christopher and Jerry Dipoto.
To say Manuel was a fan favorite would be a massive understatement. He was loved in this town and by everyone associated with the Sky Sox, players and front office. Nothing was better than sitting with Manuel before or after a game, listening to his endless stories about playing for managers Billy Martin or Walter Alston and with teammates like Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, among countless others.
Now, many of those who remember Manuel's time here likely have become Philadelphia fans, because Manuel has taken the Phillies to the National League pennant and into the World Series against Tampa Bay.
It has always been easy to pull for Manuel, now 64, in part because he's so humble but also because he never was a superstar. Not in America, anyway. He was mostly a journeyman backup as a major-league player (1969-72 in Minnesota, then 1974-75 with the Los Angeles Dodgers), and when he couldn't find work here anymore, he went to Japan and in 1979 became the first American ever to be honored as that nation's Most Valuable Player.
His stature across the Pacific hit home here one night in 1990 when former Sky Sox president/general manager Fred Whitacre, Manuel and their wives went out for dinner at the old Benihana restaurant on Academy Boulevard.
"Charlie loved Japanese food from when he played there, so we went in, totally unannounced, nothing set up," Whitacre says. "The owner was there, and when he saw Charlie, he went nuts. He stood there and said, 'Ah, Charlie Manuel, left-hand hittah,' and imitated Charlie's swing with a spatula. Needless to say, our dinners were comped that night. But it was just so wonderful to see Charlie get that kind of reaction."
Whitacre also recalls a classic Manuel story from the ballpark. The opposing team had an outfielder who had played for Manuel in another league. One of the Sky Sox came to the plate, and Manuel yelled at his former player to move over in the outfield. The player did and the Sky Sox hitter promptly drilled an extra-base hit that otherwise would have been caught.
"Charlie loved that," Whitacre says. "He said, 'Ya know, that kid was always coachable. He did what I asked him to do.'"
Manuel left with good memories and a healthier lifestyle. Before the 1991 season, he suffered two heart-related episodes followed by an angioplasty, and his doctor here put him on a diet-and-exercise regimen that worked wonders. Manuel made it back to the majors in 1994 as Cleveland's hitting coach (under manager Mike Hargrove, who was here in 1989), then replaced Hargrove as the Indians manager from 2000 to 2002. After two years in the Phillies' front office, Manuel returned to the dugout for the 2005 season and now he's at the brink of baseball's pinnacle.
But he never forgot where he came from, either. When we visited one night in Cleveland during the late 1990s, Manuel couldn't stop talking about his time here.
"You know, obviously, I'd always rather be in the big leagues," he said then. "But of all the other places I've been, Colorado Springs, that was the best."
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