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A Terry Good Time to Turn It Around

Saturday was Valentine’s Day, providing those us of who still adore from chronologically afar the occasion’s namesake a moment to recall the improvement Bobby Valentine’s Mets produced in his first full year at the helm. After finishing 71-91 in 1996 (a campaign he took over with 31 games remaining), the 1997 Mets delightfully surprised their loyalists with a Wild Card-contending 88-74 season, setting the stage for postseason runs to come.

Although he has a day named in his honor, it is understood Bobby V wasn’t everybody’s cup of managerial tea, so maybe you’d rather be romanced by consideration of the skippers who led other memorable Met turnarounds.

In 1969, his second year at the helm, Gil Hodges upped the Mets’ record from 73-89 — which itself represented markedly higher ground from the 61-101 squad the relentlessly fascinating Salty Parker [1] brought home — to 100-62 and, of course, a world championship coda.

In 1984, first-year manager Davey Johnson was the turnaround specialist, converting a perennial sub-.420 dud into a 90-72 dream. It was the Mets’ first winning season since 1976 and a delectable appetizer for the main course that was ready to be served in 1986.

In 2005, Willie Randolph assumed the limp Met reins from Art Howe and crisply set the club galloping past .500 and to the cusp of greater things that were only a year away.

You notice a trend among Valentine, Hodges, Johnson and the mostly forgotten Randolph? It’s not just that they transformed perennial losers into certifiable winners. It’s that they did it with minimal delay. Gil: second year. Davey: first year. Bobby: first full year. Willie: first year.

Terry Collins is entering his fifth year as Met manager, the only man besides Hodges, Johnson and Valentine to greet Met pitchers and catchers in as many as five consecutive Februarys. He’s presided over four consecutive losing seasons. He’s not picking up for Westrum/Parker, Bamberger/Howard, Green or Howe. The losing manager’s trend he’s charged with turning around belongs to Terry Collins.

Will entrusting a promising team to the manager who hasn’t led its four immediate predecessors to a single winning record work if the goal this year is to craft a legitimate contender? Should we expect it to work? There is no precedent in Mets history that suggests the same old manager is suddenly capable of generating bright new results. Precedent isn’t everything, but it does have the benefit of having occurred before, and we simply haven’t heard a voice as familiar as Collins’s has become suddenly resonate in an uplifting fashion when it hasn’t done the trick this long.

For a team that tinkered only slightly with its roster en route to Port St. Lucie, is it reasonable to expect the manager who has led the Mets to 77-85, 74-88, 74-88 and 79-83 seasons to lead them much further in 2015?

Every edition of the Mets — even the Collins versions that seem to have played the entirety of their annual slates of 162 games on Groundhog Day — is different. Every set of circumstances can’t help but be unique. So let’s ask our old, anecdotally reliable pal precedent (we are, after all, on the eve of Precedent’s Day) for some background on those aforementioned turnarounds. Specifically, how different did those respective Met clubs appear from the end of the previous year to the beginning of the next?

• The team Hodges was about to elevate to miraculous heights didn’t make any high-profile moves heading into 1969. Mostly, they lost Dick Selma in the expansion draft and selected Wayne Garrett in the Rule 5 draft.

• Johnson showed up to St. Petersburg in 1984 determined to retain the services of 19-year-old, Single-A phenom Dwight Gooden, which more than made up for Frank Cashen’s clumsy deletion of Tom Seaver and overshadowed any minor shuffling that had taken place since October 1983.

• Valentine’s inaugural Spring Training featured one prominent arrival from another organization, that of erstwhile Toronto Blue Jay John Olerud, and an assortment of radar-or-below imports whose collective potential to gel ultimately seemed dependent upon Bobby V’s knack for personnel alchemy.

• Randolph benefited from a spending spree when that sort of thing was in Flushing fashion. He was provided Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran as his foundational building blocks. It would be hard to continue losing with stars like those on hand, though other new Met managers had certainly pulled off such feats despite similar purchases made on their behalves.

Some casts were altered slightly. Some dynamics changed dramatically. All the managers were still fairly fresh in their roles. That’s the part that looks like the common denominator of those four great Met leaps forward.

Terry Collins will not have a hard time putting names to faces [2] in the days ahead. He knows intimately almost everybody who figures to be on his roster come Opening Day. Michael Cuddyer, John Mayberry and perhaps Sean Gilmartin or Duane Below [3] loom on his new-guy radar. Everybody else — including prime recovery candidates Matt Harvey who missed all of 2014 and Bobby Parnell who missed all but one horrible inning of it — should be intensely familiar to him, just as Collins will be a known quantity to them. Familiarity will be reintroduced to familiarity on the heels of a quadrennium when the most familiar element of Mets baseball has been the losing.

Now let’s think back over the World Series-winning managers of this century.

It took Bruce Bochy four seasons to capture a world championship for the Giants, but by his third year in San Francisco, he had them out of the doldrums and up to 88 wins.

John Farrell won a World Series for the Red Sox in his first go-round in Boston, one year after Bobby V finished last at Fenway.

Tony LaRussa had the Cardinals atop their division in year one (1996) after a rare fallow period had disillusioned St. Louis.

Joe Girardi was a world champion manager in his second season managing at an undisclosed location nearby.

Charlie Manuel contended from the get-go as Phillies manager, making the playoffs in year three (sigh) and getting fitted for a ring in year four.

Terry Francona won it all for the Red Sox in his first season there.

Ozzie Guillen guided the White Sox to their first modern-era championship in his second season running the South Side show.

Jack McKeon took over a humdrum Marlins outfit in May of 2003 and had them pouring champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium by October.

Mike Scioscia piloted the Angels to the highest of heavens after three years on the job.

Bob Brenly won everything there was to win in his first year managing Arizona.

Joe Torre, you don’t need me to remind you, won a World Series as soon as he took on his initial American League assignment.

You don’t have to mull only world champions to find better results sooner than later where skippers are concerned. Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle, Ned Yost, Buck Showalter and Bob Melvin all managed winning records in their most recent postings by the end of their third full seasons in those locales, pushing their teams into playoff contention in the same time frame. If a given manager’s ballclub is going to get noticeably better, it gets noticeably better not all that long after he shows up; if it doesn’t, he doesn’t continue to get invited to keep showing up. However much credence you put into in-game strategy and so forth, a manager’s voice can be presumed to have made some sort of impact for the good when a team has turned around its fortunes. Following 1969, 1984, 1997 and 2005, the men who managed those Mets were understood to have effected serious positive change.

If such results haven’t been reflected in the won and lost columns after four full seasons — no matter how positive his reviews have been, no matter how few of his players have expressed disgruntlement while he’s been in charge — what tells us that in his fifth season occupying the Met manager’s office Terry Collins is likely to spark a clubhouse full of essentially the same individuals, whatever their respective talents and ceilings, to substantially greater collective achievements?