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NLCS has all the makings of a classic

NLCS has makings of a classic

Charlie Manuel was sitting alone in his office the other day when I walked in and mentioned Manny Ramirez.

Charlie adjusted the red cap on his head, and I couldn't determine whether the expression was a smile or a frown as he sat back in the big chair behind his desk. It was probably a combination of both.

"I can tell you this," the Phillies manager finally said. "Manny's the one guy we don't want beating us."

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Pausing, Charlie added: "You know, if we play seven games it's going to be hard to walk him 28 times. No way."

Manny has a .314 career batting average, and a .278 average with 26 homers in 99 postseason games -- including a .500 mark with two home runs in the Dodgers' shocking sweep of the Cubs in their just-completed Division Series.

As the Phillies and Dodgers began their best-of-seven journey that will end with a ticket to the World Series, the zany, unpredictable Ramirez was obviously on Charlie's mind.

Charlie, you see, was one of Manny's first managers. And there was little doubt even then about how well the 21-year-old Ramirez could hit a baseball. But Manuel says he definitely helped him.

More about that later.

The Manuel-Ramirez connection is just one of many in the intriguing Phillies-Dodgers history. Their battle for the National League pennant began Thursday night at Philadelphia's hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

And Manny was up to his old tricks in the opener. He just missed a home run in the first inning against Cole Hamels, but doubled home the Dodgers' first run. Later, he added a single.

But with the Phillies clinging to a 3-2 lead in a tense eighth inning, as Manny came to the plate with one out, Charlie went to the mound to confer with reliever Ryan Madson. Whatever was said worked. Manny grounded out on the first pitch.

"I just wanted to make sure we knew how to pitch him," says Manuel, who refuses to divulge his strategy to get his former pupil out in remaining games.

Seth Everett, my MLB.com broadcast partner, labels the Tampa Bay Rays-Boston Red Sox ALCS match "a classic."

He's dead wrong. I don't see how a first-time playoff between the Johnny-come-lately Rays and the postseason-veteran Red Sox can be called a classic. There's no history. A compelling series? Yes. A classic? No.

Dodgers-Phillies is dramatically different.

There's so much history, so much cross-pollination that, yes, it earns the right to be called a classic.

Start with people:

• Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa was an All-Star shortstop for the Phillies, a force during their climb to prominence in the 1970s, climaxed by their only World Series championship in '80.

• Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes was an All-Star second baseman for the 1970s Dodgers and instrumental in derailing the Phillies twice ('77-'78) in the NLCS.

• Dodgers GM Ned Colletti was a sports reporter for the now-defunct Philadelphia Journal. He began his baseball career in 1982 with Cubs general manager Dallas Green, who grew up in the Phillies' organization and managed the '80 World Series winners.

• Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth played with the Dodgers. After a strong 2004 season when he batted .262 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs, he injured his wrist in Spring Training of '05. He struggled, had two surgeries, missed all of '06 and was ultimately signed by Phillies GM Pat Gillick, who drafted him as a catcher in '97 when Gillick was with the Orioles.

And then there was Black Friday.

That is really where the current Dodgers-Phillies history begins. Of course, for me it was the last day of the 1950 season when Dick Sisler blasted a game-winning home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, propelling the Phillies into the World Series against the Yankees.

This is the fourth time since the League Championship Series began in 1969 the Phillies and Dodgers have met. After advancing in '77 and '78, the Dodgers lost to the underdog, under-appreciated "Wheeze Kids" in 1983 -- an aging juggernaut that included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.

None of the losses hurt more or has been as publicized as much as the third game of the 1977 NLCS, a la Black Friday.

Each team had won once in Dodger Stadium when the series shifted to Veterans Stadium on Friday, Oct. 7, 1977. The Phillies led, 5-3, after eight innings, but with two out in the ninth the Dodgers tied the game thanks to a blown call at first base by umpire Bruce Froemming.

Lopes' grounder kicked off third baseman Mike Schmidt's glove, and Bowa barehanded the ball and threw to first base for what would have been the final out. Froemming ruled the speedy Lopes safe, but TV replays showed he was out. The tying run scored and, after Lopes stole second, he scored on Bill Russell's single to center.

Earlier in the inning, with two out, Vic Davalillo laid down a bunt single. Pinch-hitter Manny Mota smashed a deep fly to left field that Greg Luzinski misplayed into a double, allowing Davalillo to score. Lopes was up next.

Phillies manager Danny Ozark was criticized for not replacing Luzinski with Jerry Martin, a defensive move Ozark made most of the time.

The Phillies and Steve Carlton lost the next night in a steady rain, 4-1, in a game NL president Chub Feeney refused to postpone, and it was over.

"I think Bruce knew Davey was one of the fastest players in the league, and I guess he figured once the ball hit off Schmidt's glove there was no way he could throw him out," Bowa said. "I know Davey says let it go. But he was out. He knows he was out, and he can go look at that all day -- 100,000 times he was out.

"I don't know why people talk about such a negative when they have had such a great organization for so many years. What was it, 31 years ago? Why they dwell on it, I have no clue. What about the next game? They had a chance to regroup, come out and kick our butts. But they didn't do it."

Manuel keeps hearing all the talk of Black Friday, and he merely laughs.

He's more interested in the present, but cannot help but think back to when he first had Ramirez.

"I was managing for Cleveland in the Minor Leagues, and had heard about him," Charlie said. "Then, in 1993 when I was at Charlotte, they sent him to me in July. That first day he walked into my office and I asked where his baseball gear and luggage was. He said, 'I don't know.' ... He said he left it at the airport and didn't even get his luggage. He also said he didn't have any cab money, either.

"I was astonished. Well, we sent back to retrieve his luggage.

"Now, he goes out to hit. He's standing up in the batter's box, and he's kinda pushing the ball into right field. I remember this like it was yesterday. I turned to my coaches and said, 'Oh, no, there's another kid I'm going to have to work with.' I didn't say anything to him that first day.

"He got into the game that night, hit a home run just to the right of center field, over the backdrop and hit it a long ways. Next time up, he got a little bit better and hit one a little farther to left-center -- well over the backdrop."

Pausing, and smiling, Charlie adds: "I turned to Dyar Miller, my pitching coach, and said, 'I don't think I'm going to have to work with this kid.' I'll tell you, Manny Ramirez can make you a good hitting coach."

Anytime Manny would have a poor game, there were people who wanted to tamper with his swing.

"I had to keep people away from him," said Manuel, who was the Indians' manager in 2000 when Ramirez batted .351 with 38 homers and 122 RBIs. "Everybody wanted to mess with him, and I wouldn't let them."

Now, Manny Ramirez may stand between Charlie Manuel and his greatest moment in baseball.

For some reason, that doesn't seem fair.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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