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The Best That You Can Do?

Bob Melvin. Terry Collins.

Terry Collins. Bob Melvin.

Really? That’s the best Team Genius [1] can do for serious managerial candidates?



Caveat: I haven’t interviewed Bob Melvin or Terry Collins. I haven’t worked with them. I haven’t spoken to their peers. I haven’t played baseball for either of them. Thus, I could be missing whatever it is that has catapulted them to the reported top of the list among candidates considered for the post of manager of the New York Mets.

That said, this is who it comes down to? Two retreads whose winning was limited in their previous engagements and whose reputations did not seem to make them particularly hot commodities within the industry during their time at liberty?

This is it?

Like many curious Mets fans, I suspect, I’ve found myself rereading Moneyball to discern the Alderson philosophies and have stared relentlessly at the most oft-cited passage regarding our new GM’s theories on what he wants — and doesn’t want — out of a manager.

“In what other business,” he asked, “do you leave the fate of the organization to a middle manager?”

The context for the remark was a discussion of Moneyball’s signature aspect, the value of on-base percentage, and how it was no simple task to implement it as the guiding principle from bottom to top within the Oakland A’s system since longtime (and undeniably successful) manager Tony La Russa had his own ideas about what he wanted his players doing. Downgrading a Hall of Fame manager to the status of midlevel apparatchik was Alderson’s way of saying the A’s weren’t necessarily La Russa’s players. They belonged to the A’s, and there was an A’s way of doing things that was to take precedence over any manager’s theories.

That was the idea, according to Moneyball, but La Russa stopped figuring in the equation once his contract was up and he split for St. Louis. The vacancy gave Oakland Art Howe, likely every Mets fan’s idea of a middle manager after he chalked up two ineffectual seasons in the Mets dugout.

Howe led (or middle-managed) Oakland to three consecutive playoff berths, so one can infer that the system worked better out west, or that the A’s had better players from 2000 to 2002 than the Mets did in 2003 and 2004. Not every situation syncs to every person, and Alderson indicated amid the press gaggle that followed his formal introduction at Citi Field on October 29 (as transcribed [2] by ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin) that his entire thought process on managerial selection had not been fully reflected in Lewis’s nearly eight-year-old work.

I know there’s been some discussion about the three paragraphs in Moneyball that relate to me. I do believe, just putting it in a broader context, that a manager needs to reflect the general philosophy of the organization. That’s important not just for a manager. That’s important for a player-development system. It’s important for every element of a baseball operation to have some sense of consistency of approach, of philosophy.

At the same time, the manager is a very critical part of the overall leadership structure. His job is very different from mine, it’s very different from the director of scouting, etc. There are certain qualities that he has to bring. I have in my years worked with managers ranging from a Tony La Russa to a Billy Martin. So I can appreciate a fiery manager. And I think a fiery manager is actually quite desirable. I think that in some cases a manager is not only representing an organization, but the fans in maybe frustrating situations and acts as a proxy for all of us.

I also think it’s important for a manager to be somewhat analytical, but at the same time occasionally and sometimes often intuitive. We’re looking for somebody that is right for our situation. What is our situation? You start with the fact that it’s New York City.

We’re looking for somebody that fits intellectual requirements, but also intuitive and emotional ones. That manager may have experience, may not have experience at the major league level. We’re very open-minded about it at this point. But I do want to emphasize that whoever is selected is going to be the manager and making those decisions and needs to have a certain level of independence in order to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

This was a little more than two weeks ago. Multiple candidates have been interviewed and what we’ve wound up with are Bob Melvin and Terry Collins.

Are either or both of them any or all of the following?

• Fiery
• A proxy for all of us
• Analytical
• Occasionally to often intuitive
• Suited for New York
• Meeting intellectual requirements
• Meeting emotional requirements
• Likely to maintain a certain level of independence

Last week he appeared on SNY’s Mets Hot Stove [3] after the managerial interviewing was well underway (but before the consensus that Melvin and Collins as the favorites had publicly leaked), and this was his rather broad description of what he is seeking in a manager.

From a general standpoint, I think that what you’re looking at [are] the two basic aspects of leadership, which is professional competence and personal qualities, and [,,,] how they fit together into sort of a total package.

If you’re not professionally competent, it ain’t gonna work.

But also personal qualities are very important, and some kind of blend into the professional side. Things like communication and a sense of empathy, the ability to articulate a philosophy or an approach.

So there are these two basic areas — personal qualities and professional ability — that I think we try to plumb to see what’s there.

We’ve had pretty direct conversations with our candidates about their recent experiences and specific things related to their coaching or managing history, so we’ve learned quite a bit.

If we are to take the consensus of reporting as reliable and assume that is really is down to Collins and Melvin, do these sound like words that could be applied to either of these men?

• Leadership
• Professional competence
• Personal qualities
• Communication
• A sense of empathy
• The ability to articulate a philosophy or an approach

It’s all bland enough that it could apply to anybody in any job, and, given that it was his position after the first round of interviews, it (more so than what he outlined on the day he met the media en masse) likely serves as a barometer of what Alderson wants out of a manager:

The bare minimum.

That’s what it feels like. That’s what the search for the next manager of the National League franchise in the nation’s largest market has built toward — someone who won’t get in the way. In other words, a middle manager.

Maybe it’s the way to go. Maybe the Alderson-DePodesta-Ricciardi genius transcends personality in the clubhouse and dugout. Maybe it’s enough to transmit the idea that batters should take pitches and pitchers should throw strikes and not give up runs. Maybe consistency of approach is what the Mets have been missing these past several seasons when various actors definitely seem to have been ad-libbing their parts to the detriment of the entire cast, crew and production.

Maybe. But I can’t get past the idea that a manager does have an influence on the outcomes of seasons, and not just lousy managers managing teams into the ground by stubbornness, inscrutability or whistling past the graveyard.

If we are to accept the idea that running a baseball club is a “business,” per the quote from Moneyball, I’d ask in what businesses do middle managers march solely in lockstep with upper management’s directives?

Dreary businesses, I’d say. Dreary businesses where the middle managers and the rank-and-file employees dread coming to work because the life has been sucked out of them. Dreary businesses where there’s little creative tension and, probably, little creativity.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. It may not even be an apt one, because as logical as applying business principles to baseball may be for much of what needs to be done to build a solid foundation, baseball’s a game. It’s a game of people more than principles. It’s also a game whose greatest moments are its most unlikely ones. You can endeavor to minimize risk and plan to maximize results, but sooner or later you’re going to need somebody to come up with an idea…somebody in the middle of things…somebody who knows his people.

In trying to reckon what it might be about Bob Melvin and Terry Collins that have brought them to the forefront of the Mets’ managerial search, I’ve been thinking about the managers who’ve succeeded at the highest pinnacle a manager can succeed — those who’ve won a World Series. In the past decade, nine different managers have stood at the end of the postseason cradling the Commissioner’s Trophy. They’ve been a diverse group:

• Bob Brenly
• Mike Scioscia
• Jack McKeon
• Terry Francona (twice)
• Ozzie Guillen
• Tony La Russa
• Charlie Manuel
• Joe Girardi
• Bruce Bochy

Beyond the prize they’ve attained, I’m at a loss to determine a common denominator among them, but I never got the sense that any of them was a cipher. They lent their teams a sense of urgency. They never panicked. They were preternaturally serene. They fired up their troops. They were tough. They were reasonable. They laid down the law. They were players managers. They were just what was needed for this team, and now the whole world knows it.

Maybe we’ll be saying something similar someday for Collins or Melvin. Someday, perhaps, we’ll be writing that we didn’t know the inner fire that burned inside Bob Melvin, the desire to win that overtook him and spread quietly but effectively to his troops. Someday, it could be, we’ll be telling one another that Terry Collins took the hard road to this moment, that he ironed out the kinks that tripped him up at previous stops and learned a lot along the way and now it is we who reap the benefits. We might very well be saying that after Jerry Manuel, Terry Colins/Bob Melvin was exactly the antidote for the Mets’ malaise…and now the whole world knows it.

But I’ll bet, should we feel compelled to praise one of them to the high heavens because he has accomplished the most any major league manager can hope to accomplish, that we won’t be saying, “That guy was good the way he shut up and quietly went along with whatever the front office decided.”

There’s got to be more than that to managing, whether it’s managing innings or egos. There has to be a reason Bobby Cox had so many in the sport — Braves players past and present in particular — tipping their caps to him on his way out beyond how well he absorbed memos from John Schuerholz. “I’ll be loyal to Bobby Cox as long as I live,” a bit player from his earliest team said in 2010, and he wasn’t alone in expressing such enduring devotion [4]. No mere functionary inspires those kinds of feelings.

There had to be a reason, too, that Sparky Anderson was eulogized so warmly upon his recent passing besides a predilection for next-generation Stengelese. Joe Posnanski, not surprisingly, wrote a beautiful remembrance [5] of Anderson, featuring these thoughts from one of Sparky’s most celebrated players:

“I don’t know why we did the things we did for Sparky,” Pete Rose said. “But we all did. All of us. Johnny. Joe. Me. All of us.” In 1975, middle of the year, Sparky Anderson asked Pete Rose to move from the outfield to third base, a position he had not played in 10 years (and had hated when he did play there briefly). And Pete Rose moved. “We wanted to win for Sparky,” Rose said. “He just had this way about him.”

“We wanted to win for Sparky.” I don’t know whether that’s a sentiment Rose expressed upon hearing that his old manager died or was recorded when Posnanski was writing his book about the Big Red Machine. Either way, it’s telling, even if it describes a scenario from 35 years ago, from the tail end of the age when players had no choice about the manager for whom they played.

We wanted to win for Sparky. Not play for Sparky. But win for Sparky. Rose and Bench and Morgan and Tony Perez (who, on another occasion, used the exact same phrase [6]) and the rest of the Machine probably wanted to win for themselves as well, but every possible motivation in the name of a championship is welcome.

(And, for what it’s worth, shifting Rose, a perennial All-Star left fielder to third base with the season a month old to create a spot for emerging slugger George Foster, was pretty gosh darn creative.)

Can you imagine any 2011 or 2012 New York Met declaring he wants to win for Bob Melvin? For Terry Collins? Can you imagine any 2011 or 2012 New York Met pledging lifelong allegiance to Terry Collins? To Bob Melvin?

Is this a little much to ask? Aside from the modern ballplayer being primarily loyal to himself, we are comparing two almost random former big league managers to two legends of the game, one who is ensconced in Cooperstown, one who will be at the first opportunity.

But is practical randomness the best the Mets can do for a manager? Are we to believe that it didn’t matter who succeeded Wes Westrum as fulltime Met manager in 1968, that Gil Hodges didn’t have a profound impact on the fortunes of this franchise? That Davey Johnson was not essential to the unprecedented long-term success that coincided with his appointment prior to the 1984 season and all but expired with his dismissal in 1990? That when the Mets snapped a veritable six-year losing streak in 1997 and contended every year through 2001 that anybody could have been filling out lineup cards and that Bobby Valentine’s handwriting and fingerprints were just incidental?

I just don’t buy that.

I have no hunch if the next manager will be Bob Melvin or Terry Collins or a late-breaking dark horse, but I’d sure like him to be ideal. I’d like him to be a difference-maker. I’d like him to turn this club around, to get it to play intelligently and passionately. I’d like him to outthink his opposite number. I’d like him to be managing in the sixth while Fredi Gonzalez and Charlie Manuel are still fumbling around with the fourth. I’d like him to take no guff from umpires when they make their usual spate of bad calls. I’d like to hang anxiously on his every pregame and postgame word. I’d like him to bunt only when it makes sense, to give the take sign because he’s picked up something the other team’s pitcher is doing, to shuffle lineups and personalities expertly. I’d like him to keep Pedro Feliciano’s left arm from falling off if Pedro Feliciano’s arm is still here.

I want frigging miracles, I suppose, yet I’m not going to get those. I don’t know what’s in store, but managerial miracles don’t appear in the forecast. Maybe I don’t know enough about Collins or Melvin as individuals, but I’m trying to imagine a moment when the Mets rally behind one of them and drive to glory. I’m trying to see one of these hired hands having his head doused by bubbly after he hands the Commissioner’s Trophy back to Alderson, and Alderson hands it to a Wilpon.

Bob Melvin. Terry Collins.

Terry Collins. Bob Melvin.

The picture comes up blank.