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Catching Up With Rick Manning

Catching Up With Rick Manning

| On 11, Dec 2013

Rick Manning just might be the ultimate Cleveland Indian.

Manning was drafted by them, played for them, and now has been a television announcer for the Indians for 24 consecutive seasons—longer than any other TV announcer in the team’s history.  As far as former players go, his 32.5 years spent with the Cleveland organization is only rivaled by pitcher/announcer Herb Score (38 years) and pitcher/coach Mel Harder (35).

Growing up as a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, the Cleveland Indians were the closest Major League team in proximity to Manning (the Toronto Blue Jays were not established until Manning’s third year in the Majors), but they were not the closest to Manning’s heart.

“I rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Manning said.  “My dad was from St. Louis and all of my friends were Yankee fans.  I didn’t like the Yankees—I was a National League guy.”

Not liking the Yankees was a good start, as Manning at least had that going for him when he was drafted second overall by the Indians in the 1972 Draft.  When the call came, the centerfielder was surprised to get a call from Cleveland, but certainly wasn’t disappointed.

“How do you get disappointed going second overall?  I didn’t know where I was going to go,” Manning remembers.  “I never knew that the Indians were going to draft me.  I was scouted by a lot of different teams but I can’t honestly say that I knew who was going to take me.  It’s wasn’t like it is today.  I was scouted, I talked to a lot of scouts and the Indians were one of the last teams that I thought I would get drafted by to be honest with you.”

Manning spent 1972-74 in the minor leagues, posting impressive statistics worthy of such a high draft pick.  In 1973, his first full season with the single A Reno Silver Sox, Manning hit an impressive 14 triples and stole 24 bases, only getting caught five times.  He was promoted to AAA the following year with his sights set on Cleveland for the start of the 1975 season.  The Indians, however, already had All-Star George Hendrick patrolling centerfield, so the 20 year old Manning again started the year in AAA.

“When I didn’t make the team out of spring training I was a little disappointed because it was Frank Robinson’s first year,” Manning said, “but I made it up in May so it was good.  It was all good.”

Despite missing out on Robinson’s historic home opener, Manning was still a strong contributor on the rookie manager’s ball club.  Manning batted a solid .285 as a rookie and stole an impressive 19 bases as well.  Even with his good efforts, Manning did not garner a single vote for American League Rookie of the Year, as Boston Red Sox sluggers Fred Lynn and Jim Rice hogged 100% of the votes.

“I was just happy to get to the Big Leagues,” Manning said.  “It was a dream come true.  I was only 20 years old and back then there were no expectations—you just get to the Big Leagues and that’s what you wanted to do.”

The young Manning had put himself on the map as a player to watch and in 1976—during his age-21 season—he was an Indians regular and batted leadoff on opening day.  He took over in centerfield, pushing Hendrick to left, and won his only Gold Glove during the bicentennial campaign.  Manning was a solid starter during his entire tenure with the Indians, having a shining moment as an integral part of one perfect night in 1981.

“Barker’s perfect game was the game,” Manning said.  “It was a perfect game…it was only the 10th in the history of baseball.”

Manning is referring to Len Barker’s majestic evening on May 15 at Cleveland Stadium.  Barker had retired the first 26 Toronto Blue Jays that came to the plate that night and he was one out away from perfection.

“I wanted the ball hit to me,” Manning remembers.  “You get caught up in it.  A no hitter—let alone a perfect game—I was just sitting back and watching obviously the best game he ever pitched.  It was fun to watch.  He only had like 103 pitches and he had 11 strikeouts but didn’t have one until the fourth inning.  He was cruising and mentally it didn’t matter where that ball was hit, I felt I was going to catch it.”

He didn’t have to wait long or run terribly far as the 27th batter, Ernie Whitt, lifted a weak fly ball into shallow left-centerfield.  Manning ran under it and grabbed it to complete the second perfect game in Indians history.  He leapt high in the air after the catch helping to immortalize one of the greatest moments in Tribe history.  Manning knew he had it all the way.

“Fortunately Ernie Whitt hit it to shallow centerfield and I knew he had a perfect game.  I knew I was going to catch it the moment it went up.  It was good.”

The moment that immortalized a different ballplayer stands out for Manning simply because the teams that Manning played for in Cleveland were—to put it nicely—average at best.

“We never made the playoffs but we had some teams that were around .500 and a couple teams that were over .500,” Manning said.  “Back then there were only two divisions—the East and the West.  We were in with the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers and we just didn’t have enough.  The unfortunate thing was they never kept the guys around long enough.  A guy would come up, get ready—and then they’d trade him.  They couldn’t afford him.  It was unfortunate.”

The same fate awaited Manning as it did for so many of his teammates during the summer of 1983.  On June 6, the Tribe traded their starting centerfielder, along with Rick Waits, to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Ernie Camacho, Jamie Easterly, and slugger Gorman Thomas.  Manning joined former Indian Harvey Kuenn’s ‘wallbangers’ and the rest of the defending American League Champions as the Brew Crew finished the ’83 season in a disappointing fifth place.

Manning spent the final four and one half years of his career as a member of the Brewers, playing just about every-other-day through the 1987 season.  With his career quickly coming to an end, Manning had one more shining moment left in his career that August…and ironically was booed at home because of it.

“It was August 26, 1987,” Manning remembers with a smile.  “Paul Molitor was on a 39 game hitting streak and it was the 10th inning.  I wasn’t starting that game.  John Farrell started the game for the Indians and he was having a good second half—and he was matched up against Teddy Higuera who was really good.  It was a really good ballgame—0-0 through nine—and the top of the 10th comes along.

“Molitor (already) had four at bats.  We watched this 39 game hit streak, which was awesome at the time.  A couple of times he bunted to keep the streak going.  A couple of times he did it in his last at bat.  It was really fun to watch.  Doug Jones came in after we got them out in the 10th inning—it was still 0-0. A couple guys got on and we were in the bottom part of the lineup and the manager told me that I was going to hit.  I got up to face Doug Jones and Molitor was on deck, but it’s my job to get a hit and win the game.  Eventually I did.

“The first ball was inside for a strike and the fans started cheering.  I played for the Indians and Brewers and that was it…I started thinking, ‘Did I put on my old Indians uniform or what?’  Then I looked down and I realized that they wanted me to make an out.  It sort of motivated me.  I ended up getting a base hit up the middle, game over, we win 1-0 and they started booing.  Molitor, being on deck, was the first one to greet me and he said, ‘Hey, thank God it’s over,’ because he was going through stuff with having to deal with the media.  Back then, the media wasn’t around like it is now.  It was weird.  I’ve never seen that happen before where you’re in your home park, you get a hit to win the game and you get booed.  I didn’t take it wrong or anything like that.  I knew why.  They wanted to see him hit.  I said to him after the game that he had four chances to get a hit.  I got mine—it isn’t that tough.”

After his infamous night in Milwaukee, Manning called it a career at the end of the ’87 season.  Three years later, he rejoined the Indians in the broadcasting booth as a color commentator where he has spent the past 24 seasons.  When he was hired, it was a bit of a homecoming for Manning.

“I enjoyed playing in Cleveland,” Manning recalled fondly.  “Getting called up to the Big Leagues and the whole time I spent here…even though we never won.  I grew up in Niagara Falls and people used to come here every weekend when we were home.  It was like playing in front of your hometown fans.”

Having spent so much time with the Tribe, Manning has seen the team lows of his playing days to the team highs of two mid-90’s World Series appearances.  Through it all, Manning says it’s the people that keep him in Northeastern Ohio.

“I just enjoy the people of Cleveland,” Manning said.  “I lived here, my kids were born here and I still live here.  Cleveland has got a piece of my heart…I grew up here, really.”

Photo: Major League Baseball Cooperstown Collection