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The Last Days of Jerry Manuel

[T]he ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast
But they pass too slow…
— Jimmy Webb

The Mets began this baseball season [1] by playing the Florida Marlins. They suffered their first loss [2] while playing the Florida Marlins. They absorbed their first serious body blow [3] when they were swept by the Florida Marlins. They kick-started their best stretch of baseball [4] by sweeping the Florida Marlins. Then they started drifting aimlessly out to sea [5] while playing the Florida Marlins in Florida Marlin home games far from Florida. Wednesday night, they finished playing the Florida Marlins.

And they never stopped losing [6] to the Florida Marlins.

I think it’s fair to say if I never see Gaby Sanchez, Dan Uggla, Mike Stanton or any of the Florida Marlins again, it will be too soon [7], though the Mets’ first game of 2011 will be against the Florida Marlins, and, by then, I’ll be carping that I can’t wait to see the Mets play anybody — even the godforsaken Florida Marlins.

The final Met loss of the penultimate season at Soilmaster Stadium, on what was technically the last night there was summer, would have been a memorable train wreck had anybody any reason to keep an eye on the tracks. This was the kind of game — fall way behind immediately; scratch and claw enough to make you believe redemption is getting loose in the on-deck circle; find a way to fall cruelly and viciously short at the end — you fume about for ages [8] if it means anything in the standings or if it’s the middle of May or if you’re 15 years old and haven’t yet fully learned what the Mets will do to you [9] if you watch them too often and too closely. As was, in as meaningless a context as the Mets are capable of providing them, it was still pretty bad.

Seriously, this is what I think of every time they show Niese in profile.

Jon Niese, pictured at left, got knocked silly in the first inning. Well, he knocked himself silly by walking three Marlins en route to digging the five-run hole from which my momma done tol’ me [10]the Mets were never going to emerge. Overall, Niese has been a feelgood story for the 2010 Mets, but it feels now like he ought to take a seat as soon as possible. The kid from Defiance has defied the odds to a great extent this season, logging 165.1 innings to date, far more than we could have counted on coming off last year’s gruesome leg injury. It was to his credit that after the five-run first he bore down and was mostly effective until he left in the bottom of the sixth. But it would probably be to his detriment to ask much more out of him and his not-quite 24-year-old left arm.

Hopefully his final two starts — his because on the attrition-addled, Ollie-saddled Mets of September 2010, nobody else is available to take them — won’t represent some kind of workload tipping point per his long-term well-being. Maybe worrying about another dozen or so innings is unnecessary fretting, but he hasn’t been particularly effective in a month, and there’s more to Jon Niese’s Met future than the Brewers on Tuesday and the Nationals on the final Sunday.

There’s almost certainly nothing left to the Met future of Jerry Manuel beyond October 3 except one final press briefing in which he sheepishly grins, shakes his head and says something you’d laugh along with if you found anything about the team he leaves behind amusing. Of course he won’t be back next year. It’s an open secret, which nonetheless doesn’t make it polite to speak about in decibels above a whisper when Jerry’s in the room.

A few weeks ago Wally Backman seemed to be openly coveting Jerry’s job [11] when he answered some questions for the Post. Last Sunday, Mike “Talk to the Back [12]” Pelfrey couldn’t resist speculating [13] what it might be like playing for Joe Torre if Joe Torre was managing the Mets. And Torre himself briefly let it be known he wouldn’t be averse to considering such an opportunity before “closing the door [14]” on it when informed he appeared gauche being so openly amenable to taking another man’s job.

The last big game Jerry Manuel managed was, not surprisingly, against the Florida Marlins, two years ago next week [15]. The Mets didn’t win that one either, though it’s tough to pin it on Jerry’s managing. Consensus had it Manuel came into a tough situation midway through 2008 and made the best of it, leading the club through a 40-19 revival at one point and guiding also-runners to almost-winners. When his status was shifted from interim to permanent, it was a popular choice.

Everything since then has gone horribly wrong under Manuel. He earned the shot in 2009 through what he had done to get to the end of 2008 in contending shape (I still have no idea how we led the Phillies as late as we did). He earned a chance at redemption in 2010 because 2009 didn’t seem a fair reflection of his skills in the wake of all his players’ injuries. 2010 is clearly the end of the line. He hasn’t motivated the Mets, he hasn’t strategized the Mets out of their continual malaise, he couldn’t slow the Mets’ post-Puerto Rico tumble from making its inevitable downhill descent.

On merit, Jerry Manuel doesn’t deserve to return. But he does deserve to go out as one of thirty major league managers — the kind who isn’t talked about or talked to as if he already isn’t there. I won’t feel bad when somebody else is managing the New York Mets (unless it’s Art Howe again), but I do feel bad that Manuel can’t get to the finish line without his dismissal being cavalierly treated as a foregone conclusion. When Willie Randolph’s managerial tenure was on the clock and Gary Carter publicly leapt at the chance [16] to not just throw him under the bus but to back the bus up over his still employed body, it was a cringeworthy incident. There’s a code that says you don’t do that. It’s fine for the rest of us to grease the skids, as we’re just watching from a distance, but when you’re in a profession, it’s simply bad form to join a conga line intent on kicking a colleague to the curb.

“I don’t know” is a good all-purpose answer to give for the record when somebody asks about replacing a manager who’s already in office if you’re either a prospective replacement or one of the players who’s still being managed by that guy. And if you’re a person talking to that guy, take it easy on him. You can hear it in the voices of the Mets’ beat reporters when they question Manuel about almost anything, with the implication embedded in every inquiry about next year being you’re not going to be here but…

Every Wednesday, Jerry Manuel is paid to sit on the phone and chat with Mike Francesa (because who would voluntarily want to talk to him?). Francesa doesn’t need much prodding to come off as obnoxious and self-important, but yesterday he was amazingly matter-of-fact in his patronizing tone, referring to the Mets in the third-person plural to Jerry, as if he was talking about a team already skippered by somebody besides the person on the other end of the line. At one point, Manuel got very terse and asked, in essence, is it OK if I still use “we” here?

At that moment, even Mike Francesa sounded as if he felt shame. And if you can shame Mike Francesa, you must have some marketable skill, even if managing the Mets in 2011 isn’t it.