A blue and orange clown car pulled into Anaheim last night. One by one, the clowns spilled out as a calliope played madly in the background. Rollicking, it was.
Then one of the clowns went mad and fired Willie Randolph.
That’s what it feels like as Jerry Manuel takes over the Good Ship Mediocrity. That’s what it feels like to be a Mets fan this morning waking up from having fallen asleep to an incidental Mets victory and seeing on the crawl across the bottom of the screen that Willie Randolph is no longer manager of the New York Mets.
Wait, you groggily ask yourself, didn’t the Mets win last night? More to the point, didn’t the Mets fly across the country with their manager in tow and let him manage on a Monday night? Didn’t he manage all nine innings?
You mean they fired him after that? After a win? On the West Coast, after midnight on the East Coast?
That they did. Those are the New York Mets. Clown college is, as ever, in session.
It never ends. It truly never ends. For two decades this organization has run with that calliope blaring at full blast. How many managers and general managers have been shot out of cannons now?
Everything that has been prelude to Willie Randolph’s tenure comes rushing back in your mind. Everything since the Mets were kings of baseball. Every bizarre backstabbing, every oil & water disaster of front office intrigue. Every painful press conference. Every firing.
Davey Johnson wins the World Series but Cashen angles endlessly to replace him. Buddy Harrelson’s a hometown hero but they can’t wait one lousy week to show him the door. Somebody believes Al Harazin and Jeff Torborg are answers. Somebody sets Dallas Green and Joe McIlvaine against each other in a chess game of disastrous creative tension. Somebody dismisses McIlvaine in the midst of the first successful season in seven because of nebulous skill-set concerns. Bobby Valentine’s coaches are used for skeet shooting. Steve Phillips’ horrible team shrivels and Bobby V, the only manager to actually win anything around here in more than a decade, takes the fall. Art Howe lights up a room. Jim Duquette preaches youth and athleticism and lowballs Vladimir Guerrero. Howe, nice man, can’t manage a meat market and is dismissed without actually being dismissed. No one takes responsibility for the worst trade of a prospect in a generation. Duquette told to take a hike because his team, with an ownership-approved right field platoon of Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer, without Scott Kazmir, with Kaz Matsui elbowing aside Jose Reyes, with Jose Reyes practically kicked in the hamstrings by his own team trainers, with David Wright in only his first season, wasn’t ready to contend even though the public position of his employers was let’s get some youth and athleticism in here and see what happens. Let’s replace Duquette with the guy we wouldn’t give the job to in the first place, Omar Minaya.
Then let’s usher in the hundredth new era in Mets history by giving Minaya the GM job and hiring Randolph as manager and breaking out the checkbook and signing Martinez and signing Beltran and resisting the temptation to trade Reyes and Wright and let’s improve by leaps one year and let’s break out the checkbook some more and let’s sign or trade for more big-money guys and let’s watch a great start, a phenomenal start, a fabulous start and let’s all congratulate each other for the renaissance in Queens. This is improving by bounds as well as leaps: a new day, a new era, a new dawning. The Mets now, after twenty years of thumbs finding the deep ends of asses, know what they’re doing.
And that lasts for not quite one season. And its remnants dissipate the next season. And before that season is out, it becomes mightily apparent that the checks cleared but the players bounced. That the mighty accomplishments of Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner and Paul Lo Duca came with an expiration date. That Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez and Moises Alou were marked fragile. That nobody much liked each other, which wouldn’t matter, except nobody fired each other up with their dislike either. That Beltran was both worth the money and is ridiculously overpaid. That Reyes will never quite grow up. That Wright has been shoehorned into a faux-leadership position by an organization that realized it had nowhere to turn except to a 25-year-old who’s broken out everywhere except at the plate. That it would have been nice to have had some youth and athleticism in place for when all the senior citizens did what senior citizens will do and slowed down with age. That the big-market New York Mets would sign the best pitcher in the game but rely more on the Pagans, the Figueroas, the Evanses, the Tatises and the Cancels for their biggest moments. That Ryan Church’s head was to be treated like carry-on luggage.
Remember Captain Red-Ass and the Marauding Mets or whatever it was we allegedly were on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Remember the feelgood story of 2006? Remember how everything Minaya touched turned to gold? That Julio Franco was a godsend? That Willie Randolph’s calm and soothing patience were just the lubricants for this finely tuned machine?
Did it really all go to hell in a cab in Miami? Was Duaner Sanchez really the linchpin of this operation? Did one dopey trade after another have to be made to get to October only to have October crumble while the bats went cold and unswung? Couldn’t anybody get anybody to run to first? To give a damn?
Did Willie Randolph, who was never anything but Willie Randolph when he was hired, when he was maintained and when he was fired, really have to be kept hanging on after the worst September performance anybody’d seen since Poland’s in 1939? Was it necessary to parade Willie to a microphone in early October 2007 to confirm that a man with a contract was still employed? Did it have to be top priority for the New York Mets to look like they knew what they were doing instead of actually knowing what they were doing?
It’s all a blur of incompetence now, and I don’t mean Willie’s. I don’t want to martyr him. He wasn’t the best manager they ever had, he wasn’t the worst. He was, in the vernacular of hopelessness, what he was. But they knew this last year. They knew this last September. They knew it after September and they knew it in May when they didn’t like an interview he gave. So they gave the man who had a contract one, no two, no three more games…or series to prove himself worthy of their confidence. And it worked. Then it didn’t. Then it was the same old team finding brilliant new ways to lose.
Then they packed him and Peterson and Nieto on a plane only to fire them after their fourth trip west in a matter of weeks, after they won a game, before anybody could get a night’s sleep to think, hey, maybe this is no way to run an organization.
I light no candles for Willie Randolph. He’ll get paid. He did, I’m sure, what he could. He led us to a division title and a division series victory. He led us to within one game of a league championship. In 2006, he could do no wrong. In 2006, Omar Minaya could do no wrong. In 2006, the Mets as an organization, for perhaps the only time since 1986, could do no wrong. I believed that. I’m a fan. I’m supposed to believe that. Those who own the team also believed the personnel they’d assembled could do no wrong, that all their drafting was spot on, that all their confusing intramural maneuvers were healthy, that whatever got them to this point was good for business. That they themselves could do no wrong.
They’re supposed to know better. But when in the last twenty years has that ever been the case?