- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Dear Fred and Jeff…

Off-day today, and I know the two of you probably have some things to discuss. Is Ramon Castro ready to come back? Who goes if Matt Wise returns? (I vote Sosa, though that's not why I'm writing to you.) How are Pedro and El Duque doing? There are probably a bunch of things to do with Citi Field, too. Busy day, in other words. So I hate to intrude.

But I think you need to get moving on one other thing today: finding a manager to replace Willie Randolph.

It's an unhappy business, using even a small public platform like this one to campaign for a man to be separated from his work. It gives me no joy; in fact, it makes me slightly sick to my stomach. But as a lifelong Met fan who's seen so many seasons come and go, I feel it's come to this: Willie has to be fired, and sooner rather than later. I say it reluctantly and unhappily, because I think he's a good man who's doing the best he can. But I say it nonetheless.

No, I'm not mollified by that 12-1 pounding inflicted on the Dodgers, by a 3-3 road trip against pretty good competition, or by the fact that for all the Mets' sputtering, they're two good days from first place. Nor am I held back by the fact that just 20% of the 2008 season is in the books.

One stat says it all, and it's this: 71-71. That's the Mets' record since last Memorial Day.

Fred and Jeff, if you think the Mets are truly a .500 team, then Willie's probably no better or worse than anybody else who could manage this team, and you ought to keep him around. But if you think this roster you're paying $137 million ought to be better than .500, then it's high time to try and figure out what's gone wrong. There are ups and downs to any season, hot streaks and cold streaks, most all of them statistical fluctuations you can make go away by shifting your start points and end points. 71-71, though, is different. That's 142 games, the better part of a full season. It's signal, not noise.

I think Willie did a pretty good job with the Mets in 2005 and 2006. He was calm and disciplined, even-keeled in good times and bad. He served ably as a lightning rod for a young David Wright, keeping the media from putting too much pressure on his shoulders. He got results from a young Jose Reyes by teaching him to be aggressive within the strike zone. He did a lot right, and in 2006 he presided over one of your franchise's finest seasons, a glorious ride finally undone by injuries within a single line drive of the World Series.

But 2007 was an unqualified disaster, one of our most bitterly disappointing years — and the price is still being paid in the boos that rain down from the stands at the slightest provocation. I didn't think that was enough for Willie to lose his job — it's always struck me as unfair that we're counseled to be patient with young players learning on the job, yet expect managers to arrive fully formed, able to execute game strategy and manage a roster over a marathon season and police the lives of 25 rich, sheltered young men. Willie gave every indication that he would be different in 2008, that this time if he saw complacency in his clubhouse he would step in and put things right instead of waiting for his veterans to do it. He appeared to have learned a hard lesson, and to be ready to apply that lesson. Given that, it seemed like basic fairness to let him continue.

But things are no different. The 2008 Mets look very much like the post-Memorial Day 2007 Mets — they play far too many listless games in which they look like they're punching the clock, and all too often they turn in a true stinker marred by inexcusable mental mistakes. And Willie keeps saying the same things he said in 2007 — that they need to get a little rhythm, that his players are veterans who know how to win, that he has faith in them. The Mets have been in the same rhythm for nearly a calendar year, and it's a bad one. Too many of their veterans have forgotten how to win, or show little evidence that they care. His faith in them, while admirable, is misplaced.

Most damaging of all is that we're hearing the same excuses we heard in 2007 — that the Mets will be fine once El Duque or Pedro or Moises Alou returns to shore up the rotation or add punch to the lineup and brighten up the clubhouse. This has bred a dreadful passivity in the Mets, who have far too much young talent to wait around for old, fragile players to change the team's fortunes. (Not to mention that it's a poor strategy to rely on the aged and the infirm for anything.)

Does Willie deserve more time — say, enough for a full 162-game sample since last Memorial Day? Not if you have trouble imagining — as I do — that the Mets can pull off the kind of hot streak they'd need to make their record respectable. If the Mets go 15-5 over their next 20, they'd be 86-76 over their last 162 games. Beyond the fact that 86-76 isn't playoff material, do either of you really believe this team will go 15-5? If you don't, then it seems to me that waiting will just give Willie's replacement a steeper hill to climb.

What does the new manager need to do? For starters, engage his players more — and do so publicly. He should encourage David Wright to stop his endearing but self-defeating insistence on not raising his voice because he's only 25. Wright is already the best position player on this team and will be its captain within a couple of years — his voice should be heard in the clubhouse, and not just in the game stories of the reporters to whom he's invariably kind. He should look for a new way to arrest Jose Reyes' depressing regression from electric player who has some frustrating days to frustrating player who has some electric days. He should encourage Carlos Beltran to come further out of his shell, whether it's encouraging Reyes to dance or telling Jimmy Rollins off. He should make sure Billy Wagner's isn't the only voice that sounds tired of losing.

A possibility I keep returning to is Larry Bowa, no shrinking violet but also a guy who's been a mentor to young players (Robinson Cano sure seems to miss him) and shouldn't be blamed for being tuned out by a cancerous Phillies clubhouse that Patton would have had trouble motivating. Would the Mets tire of Bowa's high-strung ways? Undoubtedly, and perhaps fairly quickly. But he's the opposite of Willie, and for a time that 180-degree change in demeanor would register with a team that needs a good shake-up. One of the unhappy truths of baseball is that nearly every manager eventually stops being effective in leading his team — it's as if players naturally build up an immunity to his ways and his style, and need the antidote to those ways and that style. RIght now the Mets need a high-energy, aggressive type — whether it's Bowa or Wally Backman or Bobby Valentine or some name you have in mind that fits the bill.

It's not fair that too many of the current Mets have quit playing for Willie, and yet he's the one to take the fall. But that's an old unfairness in baseball. I wish it were otherwise, but Willie's time has passed. You need to ask him to step aside, before the 2008 Mets' time is gone as well.

Respectfully submitted,

Jason

Friday Update: Dan Graziano of the Star-Ledger is thinking along similar lines [1], though he and I differ on what kind of manager is needed. Added bonuses: He has some excellent psychological insights into Willie and why he's the way he is, and of course an actual from-the-clubhouse view.