Criticize Him, But Don’t Fire Randolph

By Ian O'Connor
Updated: September 29, 2007

NEW YORK — Willie Randolph needs to be held accountable for this Hollywood-sized disaster, thrown right in there with the bullpen and Jose Reyes and all the perpetrators of a shipwreck that makes the Titanic look like El Duque’s famous raft.

But Randolph doesn’t need to be fired. He doesn’t deserve to be fired. No matter what happens between Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Marlins and the minute the Mets Hefty-bag it out of Shea, Randolph has earned the right to manage this team in the 2008 opener.

Of course he’s responsible for presiding over this surreal free-fall into second place, a game behind the white-hot Phillies. Of course Randolph will fire himself if next year’s Mets get off to a 10-18 start.

That doesn’t mean he should go next week if his sorry cast of counterfeit contenders misses the playoffs.

Fire Willie?

“I think it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” David Wright said.

After the Mets’ eighth consecutive home defeat, the third baseman would call this implosion “embarrassing” and “pretty pathetic.” Wright blew a critical force play at third, and watched Oliver Perez hit three batters in one inning.

“This is on the players,” an emotional Wright said. “That’s where the blame is.”

Randolph? He finally cracked a bit Friday night when he said the Mets weren’t “mathematically eliminated” and added, “We’re still not out of it. [Pause] Technically.” These are words you wouldn’t expect from a cool hand facing a manageable one-game deficit with two to play.

But even Randolph has his limits. On Sept. 12, his team was seven games ahead of the field with a bunch of cupcake opponents on deck. This plunge has left him speechless.

“There’s no messages right now,” said the manager who had been leading the league in positive clubhouse reinforcement.

All in all, Randolph remains the same guy who brought the Mets to within a few runs of the World Series two years after a cardboard cutout named Art Howe put the franchise to sleep. Randolph remains the same guy whose level demeanor helped position the Mets as the National League team to beat for five and a half months of a six-month season.

His ballplayers have failed him in a fantastic way, and Randolph can’t run from that. Above all else, a manager’s chief responsibility is to inspire his team. Randolph has failed in that responsibility at the worst possible time.

He deserves the benefit of the doubt, anyway. Not because he was passed over by more teams than he could count before landing the big job. Not because he’s the first African-American manager in his hometown, a hometown that should’ve had an African-American manager long before 2005.

Randolph simply has done enough winning for a losing franchise to get another shot.

“Speaking on behalf of the players,” Wright said, “we’re pointing fingers at ourselves. There’s no reason to point them at Willie. You can question his bullpen moves all you want, but at this level it doesn’t matter who you call from the bullpen. You need to get the job done.”

Randolph’s relievers and starters came undone, one after the other. Reyes, the ultimate high-energy star, began playing passion-free baseball without advance notice. Carlos Delgado fell right off the map.

Through it all, Randolph stayed true to his no-panic self. He said he could “visualize” the headlines declaring his 2007 Mets the two-time NL East champs. When told before Friday night’s game that he sounded like Kreskin, Randolph joked that he would end up “pictured like a psychic” in Monday’s papers.

Randolph also maintained he wasn’t doing any midnight whistling in the graveyard when he walked through his clubhouse after the St. Louis loss and said, “We’re going to win this thing,” within earshot of players and scribes.

“I do that all the time,” he said.

Truth is, Randolph’s expressions of faith — however forced — are all the Mets have left.

“Willie’s had the respect of the clubhouse from Day One,” Wright said, “coming over from across town knowing he’s a proven winner.”

Yes, across town. There’s nothing like a Bronx tale to temper a Flushing flop.

Randolph was a winner as a Yankee player and Yankee coach, a winner for a raving lunatic, Billy Martin, and for a dignified gentleman, Joe Torre. That has meant something tangible for three seasons at Shea.

So has Randolph’s demeanor. The argument that he needs to show more passion, breathe more fire, makes no sense when Torre has long been praised for providing the calm before, during and after the big-city storm.

“Willie doesn’t ride the roller coaster of emotions, and that has a soothing effect on us,” Wright said. “That’s the kind of leader I want.

“I respect a guy like that way more than a manager who would come in here with his pom-poms and high-five everybody and jump around and dance around when the music’s on after a win, and then comes in here after a loss cursing and throwing chairs and throwing people under the bus to the media. I’d take Willie any day over that.”

Who wouldn’t?

Randolph has been criticized for not pulling a Bob Knight on someone’s chair, or a Woody Hayes on someone’s chin, but his even-keeled approach has been the one and only positive in this epic collapse. Randolph has kept his head while everybody around him has lost theirs.

That’s a reason to keep him, not fire him. Even if the Mets miss the playoffs, the manager should be around next spring to explain why.

Willie Randolph deserves to be ripped. He doesn’t deserve to be fired.