Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Of all the low-points in New York Metropolitans history during my tenure as a fan of the club - from the Vince Coleman firecracker incident, the David Cone masturbation fiasco, the Piazza-is-gay brouhaha, the disappointments of the 1986 team after 1986, the awful free-agents signings of the Bonilla/Coleman era, the awful free-agent signings of the Alomar/Vaughn era, the stomach-turning Zambrano/Kazmir trade, the results of Tom Glavine's final start of the 2007 season or any of the other myriad episodes that have kept this ballclub from ever shaking it's lovable-loser reputation earned during the infamous 120-loss 1962 season, there hasn't been anything that has made me feel as embarrassed to be a fan of this organization as what transpired last night and what has transpired all season long in regards to the job status of former Mets manager Willie Randolph.
Now, don't get me wrong, I can understand why the ownership of the Mets and General Manager Omar Minaya would have wanted, or even felt obligated, to dismiss Randolph. However, I cannot believe the cowardice, callousness and unabashedly condescending way in which the axe ultimately fell. Again, I have never felt worse about being a Mets fan as I do this morning. Nothing has made me hang me head at this precise angle. Not even receiving my 2007 NLDS tickets in the mail.
This is a two-part error in my opinion. First of all, I disagree with the decision to fire Randolph at this juncture. Secondly, the firing itself (putting one's feelings about it aside) was handled without class and without respect for either Randolph or the fans who support this team.
Again, it didn't seem the time to make this move here at WWOD?. Frankly, the time had come and gone. And even if it hadn't totally gone, early this morning, approximately 3:15 in the AM on the East Coast, was most assuredly not the time to fire Willie Randolph. The Mets have won three out of four and are just a game under .500 with Johan Santana slated to start tonight. This team is one win away from having a clean slate going into the All-Star Break.
And, to delve a bit deeper, this team is an a anomalous-Billy-Wagner-week from sitting a few games over .500 and only a few games out of first place in the division. Wagner, who had allowed just one earned run over the first 23 games that he appeared in, allowed six runs during a brutal three game stretch where he blew three games the Mets should have won. While I know baseball is a results game, I just can't agree to letting those three games that a three-time All-Star closer and potential Hall of Famer blew be the ones that push a manager past the point of no return. In each game Randolph got the ball to Wagner in the exact situation where Wagner is one of the best of his generation. Randolph and his team did their job in those games. And the team is playing better. They really are. Beltran is starting to hit, the bench moves were working better (see Cancel's pinch-hit over the weekend) and the starting pitching is coming around (although this fact had been obscured by last week's bullpen implosions).
So, I don't think this was the time to fire Randolph. In my opinion, there were two times where he could have (perhaps, even should have) been let go. He could have been sacked after the Mets were swept in a four-game set down in Atlanta. That is an axe-worthy trespass in these parts and no one would have begrudged Minaya or the Wilpons a decisive movement after that sweep. No one. Not even a Willie partisan like myself. But they didn't act at that point.
And, of course, the other time to fire Randolph was at the conclusion of last season's epic September swoon. The phrase "seven game lead" will forever be etched in my mind. There was every pretext and subtext and billboard-sized text necessary for such a move at that point. However, after (in a bit of foreshadowing) letting their manager twist in the wind the announcement was made that no changes were in the offing. And, that should have been that.
Because if the Mets didn't fire Willie for last year last year then they can't fire him for last year this year. Which is essentially what has happened. Let's not kid ourselves.
Of course, those are the optimist's reasons for not firing Randolph. In other words, the glass half-full side of me says that Willie should not have been fired because he had this thing under control. Because this team is poised to climb over .500 and is setting it's sights on the July 4th series in Philadelphia to announce their return to the NL East race. However, the fact of the matter is that this team is very poorly constructed. To pretend that the thing holding the 2008 Mets back is the managerial decisions of Randolph is Wilpon naivete at best and Minaya's myopic arrogance at worst. And, that's why the pessimistic glass half-full (of paint thinner) side of me says that the manager is not the problem. This team just isn't that good at playing baseball.
The problem is that this team is constructed worse than the 2007-2008 New York Knicks. Yeah, I just wrote that. That just happened. At least with last season's Knicks there was a sense of possibility heading into the season. The team was a trendy sleeper pick to reach the playoffs and people were intrigued about the possibility of Zach Randolph (coming off a statistically great season in Portland) and Eddy Curry (coming off of a breakout season in NY) playing together in the frontcourt as well as the continued development of Jamal Crawford, David Lee and Renaldo Balkman. That the Knicks ended up being horribly coached and terribly matched personality wise is beside the point here. What does matter is that the depth chart showed promise (even if the starting lineups didn't) and that there was a conceivable storyline by which the Knicks were decent, if not surprisingly good. Isiah Thomas and his cohorts believed that Randolph and Curry could play together effectively. And they had recent statistical evidence that both were capable of being All-Stars. If this had actually been the case then the Knicks might have been dominant in the East. Of course, Isiah was wrong about those two players. Painfully, embarrassingly wrong as usual. But at least you knew what he was trying to accomplish. Had he been better equipped to do his job he might have done better but at least you saw that he was trying to do something. There was a (flawed, overreaching) logic there.
Conversely the Mets came into the 2008 season with almost all of the problems that they had at the end of last season. The organization chose to blame the manager and the players for the debacle rather than taking a hard look at the roster, which stayed mostly intact. Minaya and the rest of the front office chose to believe the fiction that the 2007 team ould fix itself for 2008 and that the deficiencies of certain players during the entire second half of the season where not the fault of the players but were products of the circumstances. In part because of this outlook, Mets GM Minaya only managed to upgrade one solitary spot in the starting rotation by the difference between Glavine and Johan. Granted, that is a considerable upgrade both on the field and in the hearts and minds but that trade not only wiped clean the farm system but also masked the multiple problems with the club.
It was no secret that first baseman Carlos Delgado was abyssmal last season. He looked like his time as first-rate first bagger was behind him. So, how did they team address this? They didn't. They penciled him in to start 150 games and didn't even find a servicable backup. Delgado is currently under contract through next season (although they can by him out of his final year) and no one at the Big League or Minor League level is ready to play that position on a daily basis. Moving to Delgado's right, we find balky kneed slap-hitter Luis Castillo, who was signed in the offseason to a 4-year deal. Although he is only 32 years old (which only sounds young in the steroids era), Castillo just had knee surgery and has been appreciably slowing down for some time. He has zero pop in his bat and is a serious health concern. This was true last season and it is more true this season. Although there are a few old bench players capable of manning second base, the team's only young replacement player, Ruben Gotay, was inexplicably released before the start of the season and is now an Atlanta Brave. In other words, there was no legitimate second option at second either.
Meanwhile, left fielder Moises Alou and former ace Pedro Martinez both finished off last season as guys who could still play when they could actually play but were unable to play most of the time. Both were uber-injury prone and had missed large swaths of the 2007 season. Both players have stayed true to form this year, playing well during the brief periods that they've actually been healthy enough to take the field. Back-up plans in this case? Although Angel Pagan played better than anyone had a right to expect when the season started, the Mets have already played Fernando Tatis in 21 games this season and Nelson Figueroa started 6 times. Those two are not exactly the sort of insure policies that a club would have if they didn't expect too older, injury-waiting-to-happen sort of players to go against their recent history and stay healthy all year long.
Such inaction and wishful thinking is evident up and down the roster after one gets past the acquisition of Santana. And, while this isn't the place (yet) to indict Minaya for constructing this team with less care than a high-rise crane it is worth noting that Randolph had been held accountable to the expectations of the 2006 club (and, yup, it sure looks like that was the year for this team) with a 2008 club that is older and not nearly as deep as the one his bosses supplied him back then.
So, not only do I not think that the current baseball circumstances (i.e. team record) dictate firing Randolph but I surely don't think that he is the one who is responsible for this team's current straits.
But, even if I did feel that Randolph deserved to go, I would never have wanted to see him treated like he has been treated in the last 72 hours. He has been dangled on a line by his former employers, asked to go out and win ballgames (which he has) while being subjected to the humiliation of being trotted out in front of colleagues and a media corps. that already know he is about to be cut loose. In the past few days I felt like he handled it well, I particularly enjoyed the way he called out Adam Rubin of the Daily News for his transparent Art Howe questions after Friday night's win over the Rangers.
And, it is on this score, the treatment of Randolph, that Minaya and the Mets organization have doomed themselves. They have turned even those who were actively calling for Willie's ouster, whether in their newspaper columns, their talk radio shows or just passing the time in a folding lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of their houses, against them. Minaya and the Wilpons have turned Willie into a martyr.
The Mets organization had Randolph fly across the country, from New York to Anaheim. They had him board that cross-country flight on Father's Day, leaving behind his family, so that he could manage one last game, which he won over a first-place team incidentally. They had him fly across the country so that they could fire him away from the fans and do so late enough to miss the back pages and front pages of the local papers the next day. They fired him after he got back to the hotel from the Angels Stadium. After a win in a series opener. They fired him after he gave his postgame remarks and the beat reporters were all tucked in their hotel beds. They fired him after he might have even relaxed, letting his guard down, knowing that he had his ace taking the hill the next evening and a good chance to win his second-straight series. They fired him after even those Mets fans who stayed up to watch the West coast game had gone to bed and after the last round of Sportscenter and Baseball Tonight broadcasts were taped at ESPN HQ in Bristol, CT.
And, why? Because Minaya thinks that he A) is smarter than you; B) doesn't owe you an explanation anyway; C) there can be no final public moment for Willie in a Mets uniform.
The Mets (Minaya and the Wilpons) has confused the public evaluation (or at least perceived evaluation) of Willie's performance with the public opinion of him as a man. Even those New Yorkers (and Jersey folks too) who felt like Willie had to be fired this season still respected him. They still knew that he had pulled himself up from Brooklyn to the heights of the America's Pastime. They knew that he was hard-working and honest and loyal (perhaps to a fault) and that he was the sort of guy that you would choose to mold the lives of young men. He was a Yankee. He was a Met. And, he took the Mets to the playoffs in his second season and got them within one swing of the pennant. He was from Brooklyn and he raised his family in North Jersey. For all these reasons, and for so many more, even those who wanted him stripped of his job never condoned him being stripped of his dignity. Of him being whisked away in the dead of night as if he had never been there at all. Even those who wanted a fresh start for this team still respected Willie. And they will not react kindly to the way this was handled.
As ESPN baseball writer Buster Olney wrote this morning, "Even the writers of The Sopranos could not have invented a more recklessly handled hit."
I couldn't agree more.
Forgetting that I disagree with firing Randolph at this particular time, the way in which this all played out after that decision was made was far worse than it ever had to be. And, this will only come back to haunt Minaya and the Wilpons. Those newspapermen and radio personalities are smart enough to know that this firing was orchestrated to cut them out of the loop, even if only for a few hours, and they will not take kindly to that. Those who otherwise would have welcomed this move will now only do so after qualifying their disdain for the way it went down and those who were undecided will rail against the churlishness of the Mets and the amateurish way they conduct their business.
The referendum on Omar Minaya starts in full-force this morning. And, he won't be able to keep it out of the papers any longer.