There is nothin' like a honeymoon period, nothin' in this world. There is nothin' you can name that is anythin' like the glow of a team winnin' under an interim manager.
The Mets are now officially honeymooners, with the stars Jerry Manuel…John Maine…Carlos Beltran…and the 2008 New York Mets who — bang, zoom, straight to .500! — sit a mere 4-1/2 games from first place.
The Mets have pussyfooted around the break-even mark previously this year…all year, in fact. They've never been more than four games over it or three games under it. This morning they cool their heels right at it for the twelfth time in '08; thirteen if we count 0-0. It's not much of an accomplishment on paper for the Mets to reach .500. In spiritual terms, however, it's one giant leap for Metkind.
It's not about numbers at the moment. It's not about games out in the loss column (a trifling three) or position in the standings (an encouraging third) or watching the scoreboard (although that's exactly what I just finished doing as the Athletics harpooned the Marlins in eleven, meaning we picked up ground on them and the Phils and the Braves). It's about a feeling and a sense and a sensation that right here at good ol' .500 things are finally starting to look up.
It's the honeymoon, all right. A week ago, the Mets beat a so-so opponent 7-1 and as John Koblin assessed in the Observer, hardly anybody at Shea cared. All observers quoted in his article (including this then-at-the-end-of-his-Met-rope blogger) agreed this baseball team had problems that far transcended baseball games, even baseball victories.
A week later, the Mets beat a so-so opponent 7-2 and all seems marginally right with the Mets' world. If this baseball team has problems, none is so daunting that it can't be cured by a few baseball games, especially baseball victories.
Jerry Manuel has a .667 winning percentage as Mets manager and only a killjoy would point out that's a simple matter of 2-1. Manuel's winning streak is best expressed by acknowledging everything he's touched has turned to gold, everything he says is platinum. For instance, he's come up with a new batting practice regimen of fewer swings per player, taken on the road before the home team hits the cage. In the game that followed, his batters addressed the ball (hello ball…), scored five in the second and then tacked on a couple more later. Asked whether his BP philosophy and, by extension, his stamp on the team was truly taking hold, Manuel cracked a little smile and addressed himself directly to ownership. “Jeff, Fred,” he said, give me “three years” and he will surely make an impact.
That Jerry Manuel's one frisky sonofagun! Not to get caught up in already-stale comparisons, but can you imagine the previous manager of the New York Mets spouting anything but defensive clichés to explain why the Mets looked good out there tonight? We'd be told that that's what his guys do and they played the game well and he has confidence and zzzzz…
It's not the manager's job to entertain, but it doesn't hurt. It is the manager's job to motivate and innovate and articulate, and that's what really helps. Jerry Manuel's got this team playing hard and loving life. Didja see the inmates let out in the exercise yard…I mean the dugout before the ninth? Guys were up on their feet and slapping each other on the back and doing that thing where their mouths open and their teeth are evident but not in a menacing way.
Smiling! That's it! And the grins grew only wider a half-inning later when the 7-2 win was won. It was what we used to call a routine win but it was processed in Denver and through the television screen as much more. This team is waking up and discovering a) baseball doesn't have to be treated as Excedrin Headache No. 162; b) the mediocrity that predominated across April, May and half of June is neither inevitable nor irredeemable where the rest of 2008 is concerned; c) a game is called a “game” for a reason. These Mets right now are, shocker of shockers, kind of fun to watch, definitely fun to get behind.
But honeymoons are supposed to be fun. You're doing something wrong if yours comes off as work. Almost every interim Met manager, at least those appointed when there's been enough season left to salvage, gets one and usually makes a little something of it. The '75 Mets won the first two they played under Roy McMillan and Yogi Berra's replacement was instantly hailed as the new Gil Hodges. Joe Torre reeled off seven of eight in '77 after Joe Frazier was shown the door, the hallway and the parking lot. Hondo Howard goaded the '83 Mets into an 11-10 run. Dallas Green's charges went 5-7 after Jeff Torborg buried 1993 out of the box at 13-25; for 1993, 5-7 was the moral equivalent of 108-54. And let us not forget the patron saint of Met managerial switches, Harrelson in for Johnson, when 1990's 20-22 beginning was wiped away (after a 1-4 getting-acquainted spasm) by a 27-5 cyclone of winning, winning and winning some more.
None of it, not even Buddyball, lasted long enough to make a definitive dent in the schedule. McMillan, Torre, Howard and Green all guided their teams to indifferent or dismal finishes. Harrelson brought the Mets into September in first place, but he was outmanaged and the Mets were outplayed by Jim Leyland and the Pirates down the stretch. None of those other managers achieved anything of lasting value in a Mets uniform. Neither, unfortunately, did skipper Bud Harrelson. The feelgreat story of June and July 1990 dissolved into fractious backbiting by the second half of the year; the beloved sparkplug shortstop of 1969 was a managerial goner before 1991 was over.
(Fascinating aside from a Dave Anderson column I recently ran across in the Times from late September of '90: In comparing the strict and effective discipline of Hodges to the way Harrelson was getting regularly rolled by certain of his players, an old friend of Gil's speculated that if he were still alive and managing, “I don't think he would have tolerated Ron Darling's griping, especially when Darling wasn't getting anybody out.” I guess Darling's Sovereign Bank credo that “wherever I go, I make sure I'm comfortable” extends back to his attitude in the clubhouse during his Met twilight.)
The best, the absolute best we can hope for from Jerry Manuel is an adrenaline shot like the one Buddy administered to the uptight Mets of eighteen Junes ago, when the atmosphere needed cleansing, the air needed clearing, the manager who had come one game from a World Series two years earlier needed supplanting. Harrelson's Mets began to click in earnest on June 5, 1990 when the normally spectacularly useless Tom O'Malley blasted an eleventh-inning walkoff home run versus the Expos' Dale Mohorcic. That was the beginning of the streak that made Buddy Harrelson look like a genius. I thought of that particular adrenaline shot when Damion Easley took Justin Speier deep in the tenth Wednesday night. Easley's not spectacularly useless, but the Mets as a whole had been.
Until further notice in 2008, maybe not so much.
Reporters covering this team, naturally, want to reveal a trend. They want declarations. Every interrogator of Manuel after the game Friday asked, eventually, if we're witnessing the first signs of an authentic Met turnaround, adding the caveat — as if required by law to save them from sounding like impatient dopes — that “we know it's early.” Manuel said many smart things after the game (he used the word “permeate” which made the editor in me swoon), but the most intelligent instinct he displayed was not taking the bait. He's been manager for three games. The Mets have won two. Right now, he's a brilliant tactician and a beautiful mind. Of course he is. He's on his honeymoon. Let him enjoy it. Enjoy it with him.
And don't come a knockin' if his team starts a-rockin'.
By the way, though the Daily News quoted me accurately when they found me wandering out of the Mets Clubhouse Store in Manhattan (where I was just browsing) on Friday, I wouldn't go so far as to say I characterized the subject of this story as “a winner” or that I added to his “host of hoorays”. But at least it didn't quite come out as EVERYBODY LOVES YANKEE GREAT per the usual News formula.