Feature: Play Ball!
We’ve waited much longer than we thought we would have to wait to hear those words again. But those words return this month, along with the crack of the bats, the smack of the ball hitting the glove, the aromas of ballpark food, the roar of the cheers from fans and the sight of children playing just beyond the outfield. It’s nearly time, at long last, for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers to return to Segra Stadium.
There is something special about this game and something special about an evening at the ballfield, and now our wait is almost over.
All the Sarasota hotels were booked for one reason or another, but former “Baseball America” co-editor John Manuel, now a scout for major league baseball’s Minnesota Twins, got lucky. He was able to find one of those “tiny houses,” one that was 300 square feet of well-appointed convenience, allowing him to concentrate his Florida mornings and afternoons on scouring the minor leagues for the next Rod Carew or Kirby Puckett.
During his boyhood growing up in Fayetteville, he might have been more intent on finding the next Stan Musial. “In my family, baseball starts with my dad,” Manuel said. His father, Chrysostom Manuel, came to the United States from Greece in 1946, disembarking in New York where he ended up catching a game at the Polo Grounds. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the New York Giants, and the elder Manuel would go on to become a lifetime fan of the Cards and their star and eventual Hall of Famer, Stan “The Man” Musial.
“You can’t get any more quintessential than Stan Musial,” John Manuel said. “Baseball was always on TV when I was growing up. My dad has always been a pretty knowledgeable fan.” Chrysostom Manuel became the first fulltime priest at Fayetteville’s Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, retiring in 2000. Amphitrite and Chrysostom Manuel
still live in Fayetteville, where they raised their four children. Fayetteville is where John, their affable youngest, got his unofficial start as a sportswriter. “I played church league basketball,” he said. “And I would write a game story after the game and pass it out to my teammates. I mean, we didn’t have blogs back then.”
He graduated from high school during a stint the family lived in Asheville, then followed in his siblings’ footsteps, heading to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He majored in history with the intention of becoming a United Nations diplomat.
“But the key thing about being a diplomat,” he said, “is that you have to be better at listening than talking.”
When vaunted major league writer Peter Gammons was a guest on the student-run radio station WXYZ, Manuel called in and asked him a question. That wasn’t necessarily the sole impetus for Manuel’s own career as a baseball writer, but it would lead to a longtime friendship and to a lofty standard in his own reporting and writing.
“We still talk,” Manuel said. “It’s so great to be friends with your hero.”
Manuel didn’t enroll in a single journalism class while at UNC, but he wrote for “The Daily Tar Heel” and ended up with his own segment on WXYZ. When another respected baseball writer, Mike Beradino, did a guest appearance, he encouraged Manuel to apply for a position with “Baseball America,” the Durham-based publication that bills itself as “delivering baseball news you can’t get anywhere else.”
Manuel applied and was turned down. But on his third try, in 1996, he was hired.
“I was definitely the rookie,” he wrote in reflecting on a career with the publication that spanned 21 years. “I started off in a converted closet sitting next to an intern, working at a desk that had been made in a high school shop class, filed photos endlessly and was sent on Bojangles runs to keep the staff fed on deadline days. It was awesome.
“It was a great joy to have a way to be a nerd and get paid for it.”
Already knowledgeable about the game, he immersed himself in covering the college beat, including the College World Series and the major league draft and even the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He was promoted to co-editor-in-chief in 2005.
“I considered it a privilege,” he said, “and tried to cover the game with passion, integrity and a depth of knowledge to earn readers’ respect and subscription.”
He’d never considered becoming a scout until 2017. That’s when Derek Falvey with the Twins, who had hired several people away from writing, asked him to recommend another baseball writer with potential as a scout.
“What about me?” Manuel asked.
These days, he and his wife of 21 years, Becky Kirkland, live in Cary with their two teen-aged children while Manuel travels the country studying rising power hitters. He’ll be making occasional stops in his hometown in the coming months for Fayetteville Woodpeckers’ games and to visit his parents.
He says Segra Stadium, the minor league Woodpeckers and the city’s 30-year deal with the Houston Astros are great additions to Fayetteville.
He should know.
“I’m always amazed, having grown up when going downtown was a lot different,” he said. “The city has been good to my parents and my family, and it has changed in a great way. I’m very impressed.
“Segra Stadium is just the right size,” he said. “I’m very proud of Fayetteville. They did it right.”