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Former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel details life-threatening health ordeal: 'I was scared'

SCOTT LAUBER
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Charlie Manuel is seen here in a file photo from 2010.

It was 80 degrees before lunch Tuesday in Winter Haven, Fla., working its way to a midday high of about 85.

Hittin' weather, right?

“It’s always hittin’ weather,” Charlie Manuel said with a laugh, folksy as ever.

There’s never a bad time to talk hitting with the winningest manager in Phillies history, but especially not these days. Big Chuck misses baseball as much as anybody -- and, well, then some.

At least other team officials and lucky fans had five weeks to check on the Phillies in Clearwater before the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a screeching stop. Manuel didn’t attend spring training for only the second time in 56 years because of life-threatening health problems in December that landed him in an intensive care unit in Florida and eventually a medical helicopter to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital on Christmas Eve.

“I missed it. I really missed it,” Manuel told a pool reporter in his first interview since the ordeal. “Sometimes, when I think about it, I miss traveling to the minors. The biggest thing I miss is talking to the players, coaches and managers, being around the guys, the media. I miss the game.”

Manuel, 76, returned home earlier this month after what he hopes will be his final surgery for a while. He said he’s recovering, getting stronger, and aiming to resume his appointed rounds as a Phillies senior advisor just as soon as there are games to watch.

Scary three months: These last three months, though, were harrowing.

It all began at a hospital in Winter Haven on Dec. 16. Manuel went in for a planned hernia procedure that his wife, Melissa, said “should have been straightforward.” Instead, he developed complications that led to an emergency bowel resection on Dec. 19.

"I was scared," Manuel said. "I looked up, all my grandkids and my kin were there. That got my attention."

Manuel was recovering in the ICU when Phillies managing partner John Middleton called and offered to transport him to Philadelphia for additional care and observation. Manuel was discharged to a Center City hotel on Dec. 28 only to be rushed to the emergency room two days later with a bowel obstruction.

During his convalescence at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, Manuel went 10 days without food. He finally went home to Florida on Jan. 19 before coming back to Philadelphia for a final procedure earlier this month.

COVID-19 worries: And now, like everyone else, Manuel is girding against COVID-19. Given his recent issues and underlying health history -- heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery, diverticuitis, diabetes and kidney cancer -- there’s even more cause for concern

"I'm very scared," he said. "I'm staying in the house unless I go for a walk. We stay away from crowds."

But what does a baseball lifer do without baseball? How does he pass the time?

By talking baseball, of course.

Visits from players: In the hospital, Manuel got calls and visits from several former players. He talked on the phone with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Jim Thome came to see him. Aaron Rowand spent three days with him. Dozens of past and present Phillies officials dropped by the hospital. Manuel speaks with former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick "two or three times a week."

But Manuel said nobody checks in more often than Larry Bowa and his wife, Patty.

Manuel and Bowa make an odd couple, and not only because the former replaced the latter as Phillies manager after the 2004 season. But Manuel said he has become “very close” friends with the former shortstop in recent years, so much so that Manuel’s wife called Bowa “the best friend you could have.” Manuel’s first public appearance after getting home last week was a live Twitter chat with Bowa.

At the beginning of spring training, Manuel watched the news conferences held by Phillies president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak. He tuned into as many Grapefruit League games as possible on television, even sticking around for Joe Girardi's postgame interview sessions.

"I always liked his style, like who he is," Manuel said, adding that he spoke with Girardi once by phone during spring training. "He's a real person. He's got experience. He's done everything in baseball. He's ideal for the Phillies, really. I thought that a couple of years ago when the Yankees first let him go."

Wants to keep working: Manuel’s recovery has progressed from physical therapy to light weights and daily four-mile walks with Melissa. He never planned on a full-time return to coaching after agreeing to take over as the Phillies’ interim hitting coach last August. But he wants to keep working, traveling to the Phillies’ minor-league affiliates to talk hitting with young players and lending his expertise to anyone in the organization who wants it.

Mostly, though, Manuel said he's thankful for the help he received from Middleton and the Phillies organization and wants fans "to know how much I appreciate them and love them. That makes my day go."

"I want to work. I want to see baseball," Manuel continued. "I love working for the Phillies. I want to be able to help. I want to look and see the talent we have and evaluate it. I want to be a part of Phillies baseball and the community and communicate with fans.

“When baseball cranks up again, I want to be ready to watch some games and talk some baseball. I want to see people in the game. I miss them.”