'He couldn't play for us, but I'm sure he wishes he could have.' Print
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Monday, 01 October 2007 09:49
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 It didn't take long for the faithful to turn on their heroes, no longer than a New York minute.
More than a few Web sites that carried an account of the Mets' final collapse, following a month packed with them, offered links for a discussion of which team members should stay or go. At most of those same sites, manager Willie Randolph was the only name put to an up-or-down vote.
``I don't know how to express, really, what we've been through,'' Randolph said after an 8-1 loss to the Marlins concluded baseball's most stunning September freefall ever. ``It's a sudden deal. Everything comes down quick on you.''
avoided guaranteeing anyone's future until he had a sit-down with ownership.
Job security, meanwhile, appeared to be the last thing on Randolph's mind. He accepted full responsibility for every stumble the ballclub made down the stretch and probably has most of them committed to heart. And that's where most of them stayed.
Randolph didn't change, at least not outwardly, as that list grew longer and more freakish by the day - not even after a six-error, 11-walk performance in the finale of a three-game series against Philadelphia in mid-September that propelled the tailspin into warp drive. If Randolph's critics need more ammunition, there's that; plus his unwillingness to call out players, turn over tables in the clubhouse, get into beefs with umpires and pull one-time MVP candidate and offensive catalyst Jose Reyes out of his surly, late-season spiral.
After 30-plus seasons as a player, coach and manager, all of them prior to this one marked by quiet, consistent achievement, he wasn't about to change. Even the chorus of ``Fire Willie!'' chants from the few fans that remained until the end couldn't make Randolph depart from his script.
``I told my players this is a life lesson in baseball and in how to become champions,'' Randolph said afterward. ``And, when you get to that road, you have to seize it because you never know when it's going to come again.''
It would be a mistake to believe Randolph didn't feel that sense of urgency, though he might have fallen short in the way he shared it. Few players were more workmanlike, and even fewer were as patient.
Randolph broke into the big leagues as a slick-fielding second baseman who rarely struck out, knew how to bunt and didn't mind waiting for a walk. He led the league in that category with 119 in 1980 and topped 80 walks a half-dozen other times. Randolph was even more patient waiting for his chance to manage, spending 11 seasons as a bench coach with the Yankees while baseball wrestled with its shameful minority hiring policy, then withdrew his name from the short list of finalists for the Cincinnati job in 2000 when the Reds tried to low-ball him.
Blaming others, though, was never Randolph's style. His players learned that about him on day one; so much so that several went out of their way on the disastrous last day of a disastrous final month to stand up for him.
``To hear words like collapsing and choking associated with you, that's tough for Willie to take,'' reliever Billy Wagner told The New York Times. ``Willie's been a winner. He couldn't play for us, but I'm sure he wishes he could have. We didn't show up.''
To be fair, there have been a few times in Randolph's managerial career where he looked to be in over his head. When he took over the Mets in 2005 without managerial experience at any level, Randolph often fumbled the double-switch, likely because he spent the previous 11 seasons as a coach with the Yankees. That American League mind-set didn't help his bullpen management skills, either.
On balance, however, the lessons Randolph learned working for Joe Torre on the other side of New York did him more good than harm. He learned how to become the buffer between expectations and reality, to earn the veterans' respect and the kids' loyalties. Like Torre, Randolph sought less credit than he deserved, never once complained and won - considering the talent he was handed - as often as he should.
When Minaya and Wilpon sit down to decide his fate, a few days and some miles removed from the heartbreak, that should count for something.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
 

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