Did I hear the manager of the Mets say he expects his team to lose more often than it wins? I did.
I watched the postgame show on SNY Sunday after a rousing 11-3 win. I stayed tuned for the media scrum with Terry Collins, which, by dint of logistics, appears less stage-managed on the road than it does at home. Following games at Citi Field, Collins is seated at an elevated table at the front of a room dedicated to his fielding questions from the press. It’s all relatively dignified for him there. He’s literally placed above the crowd. After away games, however, Terry might have to do his business crammed behind the desk of the visiting manager’s office or standing up against a jury-rigged backdrop of dancing logos. At Dodger Stadium, it was the latter. Such a setting makes the manager look less like a head of state and more like a cornered animal.
Still, there was no reason for Collins to feel uncomfortable under interrogation on Sunday. His club was an eight-run winner, his cleanup hitter pounded two homers, his infield turned a triple play and his starting pitcher put aside his personal grief to deliver six quality innings. True, the manager had to deal with the possibility of no longer having Bartolo Colon by the trade deadline, and there were issues stemming from the early achy exits of slumping David Wright (neck) and steady Daniel Murphy (calf), yet given that this was the 131st Mets game he’d managed this season and his 617th dating back to 2011, the drill should have been familiar to Terry.
Questions came. Questions went. One that was fairly innocuous brought a response I found jarring. It didn’t seem to get written up in any of the game accounts I read (and I checked as many as I could find). Maybe it didn’t seem like news next to Lucas Duda’s slugging, Yasiel Puig’s baserunning, Colon’s status and the injuries. Maybe it didn’t seem like news because if the Mets are playing out another losing season in a forest, nobody who covers the team notices it. But I did.
A reporter asked about the Mets not just winning but beating a team that had captured its previous three games. After acknowledging the Dodgers were “playing good,” here (at 3:20 on sny.tv) was where Collins took his reply:
“As I was telling the coaches in the dugout today in the eighth inning, when we started this road trip and you said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna go two and three and playing two of the teams that are heading for the playoffs, you’d take it.’ Three and two would’ve been a tremendous road trip. After losing the first two here, things didn’t look very good, but we stepped it up today.”
If I’m reading that correctly, the manager of a major league ballclub thinks it’s acceptable to lose three of five games. “You’d take it,” in advance of the road trip. You’d get on a plane for California with the notion that if you didn’t get swept by the A’s or the Dodgers — or that if you won a pair against either of those teams, it was OK to lose three others altogether — you were doing all right.
That wasn’t news coming out of Sunday. Maybe it’s not news after six years of losing baseball, four of them on Collins’s watch. Maybe it’s not news in a Mets culture that seems to put no premium whatsoever on winning any sooner than eventually. I do believe it’s noteworthy, though. The same manager who said he told his team following its most recent sweep at the hands of Washington, “Let’s go win seven of the next eight” (after which they won three and lost five), is content going 2-3 against solid but hardly immortal competition.
Not simply content after starting the trip 1-3, but happy to have been theoretically guaranteed it when everything was still 0-0. So thrilled by it, apparently, that he was sharing this insight with his coaches during the second of those two wins and relating it later to reporters.
This is what it’s come to. Our team’s manager admits our team isn’t good enough to accidentally win more games than it loses against a couple of playoff contenders. Baseball games, mind you. Not once-a-week football games. Not the 0-12 expansion Tampa Bay Bucs of 1976 bundling up and flying to Pittsburgh to run straight into the teeth of the Steel Curtain defense. Those Steelers had given up a total of 28 points in their previous seven games — all victories — when they hosted the legendarily futile first-year Buccaneers.
Y’know what happened at Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday afternoon, December 5, 1976? The Steelers won, 42-0. Because that’s football. Y’know what happened when the first Dream Team played Angola during the 1992 Olympics? The USA won, 116-48. Because that’s basketball. Sometimes in some sports you know your lousy team has almost no chance against their fantastic team.
This is baseball. The gap is almost never so wide that you give up in advance on a week; that you decide not quite breaking even is OK. You certainly don’t do it when you’re on the inside and you don’t casually mention it later. Not when you’re the titular leader. It’s one thing for you or me to sit here and decide we’ll be lucky if the Mets come home from California 2-3. It’s another thing for the manager to come to that conclusion. And it’s absolutely mind-boggling that he’d share it without reservation in front of a passel of digital recording devices and notebooks.
The Mets flew west with a record of 59-67. The A’s they met were 73-51. The Dodgers they’d see next started their series versus New York at 72-57, at which point the Mets were 60-68. The A’s and Dodgers had better records, more talent and home-field advantage. But the Mets had a history of playing better on the road than they do at home, all their pitchers lined up in rotation and every motivation to prove themselves worthy of roster consideration for 2015. In other words, there was no reason to write off a winning trip before the trip commenced. Yet Terry Collins reviewed the situation and explained that’s basically what he did. He turned five days’ worth of .400 ball into the moral equivalent of going .500.
Which doesn’t connote winning, either.
He does this a lot. Listen to his postgame remarks after losses (of which there will be plenty between now and September 28, the manager has helpfully implied). The Mets are always “one or two hits” from winning instead of losing, he likes to say. “We were in it all the way,” is another common refrain, as if partial points are awarded for proximity to the most runs. Collins doesn’t have his team positioned to win. He has them prepared for pats on the head.
Lousy teams beat better teams regularly enough in baseball so that it’s not a novelty. Ask the 1964 Cardinals, who almost saw their National League pennant pulled out from under them when the tenth-place Mets came to St. Louis and took the first two games of a crucial three-game series. Ask the 2007 Mets, who didn’t fend off the fifth-place Marlins at Shea Stadium and saw their postseason plans crumple up and blow away. Ask anybody who’s watched baseball for more than five minutes. It’s baseball. One-game-at-a-timing the sport is probably the ideal course of action, but if you’re going to insist on mapping out your near-term future, you can expect to win three of five as easily as you can expect to lose three of five at any juncture of the schedule.
It’s not the losing three of five amid 162 that particularly bothers me. It’s that the manager is quite comfortable framing it as an adequate outcome…never mind that winning three of five would’ve qualified to him as “tremendous”. We know the stakes are low with little more than a month remaining to this season, but is the bar for success with this organization that low, too? Collins can pretend his key player’s performance isn’t hindered by a nagging shoulder injury, yet he can’t keep himself from admitting he’s fine with losing three of five? He couldn’t have just confined his remarks regarding beating the Dodgers to “We stepped it up today”?
Going 2-3 against two of the teams that are heading for the playoffs is not something you should so readily take, unless you’re thoroughly beaten down from guiding a losing team that never substantively improves under your leadership — in which case maybe you shouldn’t be leading that team any longer.