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It's 3 A.M. — Do You Know Where Your Manager Is?

Good lord it’s tiring being a Mets fan. Is this supposed to be work? And if it is, do we get mental health insurance?

Staying up to watch the Mets play (and lose [1]) West Coast games feels like the least of it. The Mets have been out west so often this year somebody should check to make sure Walter O’Malley’s not behind it. But the late hour is appropriate considering it got late awfully early around here this year, to say nothing of yesterday morning.

What really sums up June 17, 2008, the day Willie Randolph was fired shabbily if deservedly, was not Omar Minaya’s public relations nightmare of a press conference, a method of damage control so revolutionary that it would have to be labeled damage expansion.

It was not the drumbeat of criticism from every unfriendly corner of the media, the kind of flak I used to feel compelled to counter but now could only nod along with. Joel Sherman thinks we suck? Michael Kay says we’re bush league? Bill Madden declares we’re hopeless? In other seasons, for other causes, I’d rile up and defend the faith. Not yesterday. The Mets do suck. The Mets are bush league. The Mets have no hope. Pile on, fellas, pile on. We deserve it.

It wasn’t the substance of the dismissal of Willie Randolph, whose record for more than a year speaks…I mean spoke for itself.

It wasn’t even the midnight ride of the press release.

What really sums up June 17, 2008 for me was the point in the afternoon when it occurred to me the kind of enterprise to which I’ve given myself over and how I didn’t want to associate myself with it any longer; how I wasn’t able to put the two and two together that normally adds up to overwhelming concern for its good fortune as if it is my own; how I couldn’t care less whether the Mets would win Tuesday night or Wednesday night or any night.

I was in that zone I’ve been in rarely, the spot where I decide baseball doesn’t matter, the Mets don’t matter. All the tickets I’ve accumulated for the rest of this season, including a pair for the last baseball game scheduled to be played at Shea Stadium? I didn’t want to use them. I didn’t want to spend another minute or another dime on loyalty to its tenant. It would be appropriate if last Saturday turned out to be the last game I ever attended at Shea. It was a rainout. It wasn’t even a game. It was just all wet [2]. Perfect.

This wasn’t a gesture of solidarity with Willie Randolph. This was a safety valve going off somewhere inside. The pressure had to drain. It happened after the five-game losing streak that ended ’98. It happened after the seven-game losing streak that almost ended ’99. It happened after 9/11 [3] when baseball was just a game in a world that had suddenly gotten very serious. I came running home to the Mets after all those “that’s it, I can’t do this anymore” moments, of course. And yesterday I figured I’d do it again eventually because I always had, but as of June 17, 2008, I didn’t know when.

Certainly I had no idea I’d do it so soon.

I did it last night. I did it after Omar spoke, after Omar embarrassed himself, embarrassed ownership (which deserves more embarrassment than even an Omar Minaya press conference can provide), embarrassed the concept of communications, embarrassed his former manager, embarrassed logic, embarrassed Mets fans everywhere. I did it after Omar Minaya offered gems about how Shea’s executive suites leak like a Shea men’s room; about how Willie Randolph was, in his mind, a de facto affirmative action hire; about how 3 A.M. Eastern time, which is what it read on most of his customers’ clocks when Jay Horwitz hit send, is just a matter of perception; about how making Randolph fly hither and yon as prelude and postscript to his absolutely inevitable dismissal wasn’t careless and inane at best, thoughtless and inept at worst; about how he makes all the big decisions on his own, such as when to pay off a rather large managerial contract to someone not to manage this year and next, as if the Wilpons say, sure, go ahead, it’s only money. I’d say any press conference that begins with the words, “As you know from our press release,” when the press release represented all that was screwed up about the process everybody was gathered to ask about, is not destined to be remembered as an effective one.

It was after that that I decided I could continue on as a Mets fan. That’s because I heard Jerry Manuel speak. And I fell in love with Jerry Manuel.

I’ve got a Manuel-crush on this guy.

Maybe I was so low I could be picked up by anything positive, but damn if Manuel didn’t have me at hello, or at least when he said, no, the Mets shouldn’t be obsessed with putting their collapse behind them, that it should have been front and center in their thinking, that if he had been manager, he would have made sure they couldn’t pretend to forget it ever happened.

Here on the Angel Stadium podium, I thought, is not a politician like Omar and Willie and Fred and Jeff. This is a baseball man. This is someone not entangled in all the silly string that defines internal Mets politics. This is someone who says, yeah, it’s great for a new manager to say we’re going to run a lot more because it makes you look good but he isn’t necessarily going to commit to that because the game situation will dictate his strategy. This is someone who says his starters are going to be counted on for seven, eight innings per start. This is someone who says New York fans deserve better. This is someone, I concluded during our brief introduction, who gets us, gets us and it far more than Willie Randolph ever did. I think we always mistook Willie’s familiarity with the market for a comfort level that didn’t exist. Willie’s default mode was generally uptight and defensive and a bit snippy, particularly when questioned about what’s wrong with the Mets. How dare you question Willie Randolph? He’s been a winner all his life!

Jerry Manuel of Hahira, Georgia seems at this moment a way better fit for New York than Willie Randolph of Brooklyn or Omar Minaya of Queens. Enough propaganda about how great it is to have hometown kids grow up to run the Mets. The locally rooted imported stars who made a big deal about being from around here — Leiter, Franco, Bonilla, Viola — all acted as if they knew something that outlanders couldn’t possibly understand and they all eventually got under our skin. I don’t care where you’re from, just get us where we need to go without making us feel so used.

The Mets remind me of a large, ravenous media company I used to work for. They bought up lots of smaller companies where things were a lot simpler. That company, the big one, was great at telling you your business even though your business had never been theirs until a minute ago. That company would shove motivational slogans down your throat. Now and then that company would send somebody around with a clipboard to tell you you were being moved to a new and smaller workspace — that you were being “restacked,” that you were no more than a file to them.

Except when I worked for that company, the tradeoff was I got paid, so I, like a lot of muttering malcontents, put up with it. But those of us who had been bought up knew our own business, our own publications and industries and the soul that informed them. That large, ravenous company never would. Last I heard, it had sold off most of what it bought up in the previous decade. It hadn’t a clue as to how the stuff it acquired actually worked.

That’s the Mets to me lately. The Mets are always telling us what’s good for us, what we like, what kind of fans we need to be. We will love Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph because they’re New York feelgood stories. We must be made of lead to not be taken with them, just as we must be uncooperative to not fall for “Sweet Caroline” or any other forced group singalong, just as we should be anxious to pony up for $28 t-shirts and $15 parking, just as we should be grateful for the car dealers who pull down what should be our sacred countdown [4] numbers, just as we must be reminded again and again and again to, Everybody, Clap Your Hands…even when our closer has just extended a game that should have been over by now, even when we are in no mood to clap anything for anybody.

Somehow Jerry Manuel, a quiet witness to all of this nonsense, struck me as the antidote to Omarcalypse Now, someone removed from the fray and fresh for the fight. Jerry Manuel is not them. Jerry Manuel is us, even if he’s not a kid from Corona or Brownsville. Jerry Manuel talks directly and warmly and unpatronizingly, at least for one night he did. Jerry Manuel doesn’t let David Wright play himself into the ground even if that’s what David Wright wants. Under Jerry Manuel, David Wright DHes for a night. Jerry Manuel doesn’t let Jose Reyes sprint himself into injury even if that’s what Jose Reyes wants. Under Jerry Manuel, Jose Reyes throws a snit but hears about it — and he sits and he apologizes within three innings of an inexcusable, immature tantrum.

It may come slowly. It may not come at all. Santana went but six. The lineup out there Tuesday night was only scary if you were counting on it. The defense was too frightening for yet another late, late show. But I was rooting for the whole mess as if I had never paused to consider stopping. I was rooting for Jerry Manuel’s New York Mets. I was, more than I have in too long [5], truly rooting for my New York Mets.