Of course Rick Down had to go. Dude got a whole lot dumber once Moises Alou got hurt.
Funny how little we hear of hitting coaches when the hitters are hitting. They're a hundred times less visible than their pitching counterparts. We don't even notice how regularly they wear their jackets. As one of our sharpest blolleagues, JAMMQ at The Mets Are Better Than Sex, asked during a recent teamwide offensive torpor:
Why is it only pitching coaches are allowed to go out to the mound? Why aren't hitting coaches allowed to do the same thing for batters? Since 1954, when the Supreme Court established that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” we believe a grave injustice is still on-going in that hitting coaches and managers aren't able to run out to the batter's box and settle down a hitter in much the same way a pitching coach is allowed to go to the mound and settle down a rattled pitcher.
Great question. I haven't the foggiest as to the answer.
It occurred to me sometime last summer that Down must have been doing an aces-high job given how little his name seeped into our consciousness. After all those midseasons of the air thickening with calls for the ouster of Tom Robson or Dave Engle or Don Baylor, it was both refreshing not to see fingers pointing and discouraging to realize the guy nominally responsible for a teamwide offensive bonanza wasn't reaping substantial public credit. Mind you, I have no idea how much credit Down was legitimately due, but if everybody's going to jump ugly on the hitting coach when ohfers abound, it seems only right to say he was The Man when the lineup was clicking.
First word Wednesday night (issued as I fell asleep from watching HBO's anesthetic of a two-hour documentary on the Dodgers — Larry King grew up in Brooklyn you say?) indicated the job will fall to Rickey Henderson, though a later report said Henderson's definitely en route but Howard Johnson may become hitting coach. HoJo has been talked up as David Wright's guru while Jose Reyes' upswings have been traced to Rickey's tutelage (Jose apparently works well with No.24s).
Hmmm…maybe Down was too closely identified with Ricky Ledee.
If it is Henderson — even if it's not Henderson and he's here to coach first — it's remarkable to realize what a winding road (albeit via the same Minaya shortcut that keeps Julio Franco off the coaching staff and on the active roster) Rickey took to get back here. He was disgraced within the organization when he was released in May of 2000. That was one of Steve Phillips' decisions — signed off on by Bobby Valentine — that I was in complete alignment with. On a Friday night against the Marlins, Rickey launched a ball to the base of the leftfield wall and Rickey wound up on first. For someone whose entire career was predicated on running…Rickey wasn't. And it wasn't the first occasion since the previous August ln which Rickey's dance card eschewed the hustle. The next day, in a rare show of Met front office resolve, he was sent packing; he'd be the only 2000 Met, counting even cameo men like Ryan McGuire and Jim Mann, begrudged an N.L. championship ring by the general manager.
Seven years later, Rickey is far more welcome in Flushing than Steve Phillips. Who'd have figured?
The one thing everybody seems to remember ruefully from Henderson's Met tenure was the card-playing during Game Six in Atlanta. I have to admit I didn't get riled up about that (other than being disappointed someone would choose to hang with Bobby Bo). Though I imagine ESPN could do a nice job of dramatizing it should they ever turn the '99 Mets into a stilted miniseries, Rickey (like Bobby) was out of the game by then. Something tells me if Rickey wasn't Rickey but still shuffled the deck while his team was battling for its life, he'd be held up as a charming example of old school superstition. It's the durndest thing, I tell ya. Henderson was dealing hearts while the Mets were tying the Braves. What a character! But you could also argue if Rickey wasn't Rickey…ah, y'know what? Rickey did pretty well being Rickey. Let's hope he can teach the good parts. He is, when all is said and documented, a card-carrying legend.
The most infamous coach-sacking in Mets history was the triple-execution of June 6, 1999 when Bob Apodaca, Randy Niemann and Tom Robson took three for the team. Tom Verducci recaptured Henderson's priceless take on the situation and perhaps the value of hitting coaches four years later when the ageless wonder was hanging on with the Newark Bears:
Henderson saw reporters scurrying around the clubhouse and asked a teammate, “What happened?”
“They fired Robson,” was the reply.
“Robson?” Henderson said. “Who's he?”
Rickey's Enriched Learning Center for Gifted Children is in session…discover your desks, people. See, Rickey isn't old school. Rickey's a magnet school. Rickey's what they called, when I was in third grade, open school. In Dr. Rickey's progressive classroom, if he is indeed named head of the batting department at P.S. .268 (P.S. .252 with runners in scoring position), I doubt we'll have trouble remembering the identity of the hitting instructor for very long.