A Painful Ending In Flushing

By Tony McClean
Updated: June 17, 2008

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — So this is how it ends huh?

Following over a month of speculation and being twisted in the wind by management, Willie Randolph’s reign as manager of the Mets (34-35 this season) ended late Monday night/early Tuesday morning in Anaheim.

After winning the NL East in 2006 (97-65) and getting within one out of the World Series, 2007’s historic September collapse will unlikely turn out to be the defining moment of Willie’s brief tenure.

Leading the NL East by seven games on Sept. 12, they lost 12 of their last 17 and missed the playoffs as the Phillies rallied to win the division title. It was the greatest collapse in modern day regular season baseball history.

Despite an optimistic beginning in 2005 (83-79) in my heart of hearts, I’ve never felt the New York fans, media, team management, and most importantly, the players ever really embraced or even respected Willie all the way.

I’ll never forget when Randolph was being interviewed for the job in the winter of 2004 how Met fans moaned that “He’s a Yankee” or “He’s got no experience”. Despite being a baseball lifer and a winner on and off the field, he was given little or no more respect than the man he was replacing — Art Howe.

Even during the NL East title season, the scrutiny Randolph faced — whether it came from the New York tabloids or the team’s flagship station WFAN — seemed to have all sorts of racial overtones.

I know most folks will say that the high scrutiny goes with the territory in the Big Apple, but to me that’s an excuse that most folks use to hide their racial prejudice in regards to non-whites running an organization.

During the 2005 season while surfing the net, I found several websites and blogs that called for Randolph’s dismissal. Mind you that was his first season as manager after replacing the aforementioned Howe, who had an abysmal 137-186 (66-95 and 71-91) the previous two seasons.

While no one doubts Willie’s role in last year’s collapse, the fact that management and most of his players didn’t rush to his defense either at the end of the 2007 season or during the last few months of 2008 speaks volumes.

I told several friends and colleagues that I felt many players — most importantly shortstop Jose Reyes and closer Billy Wagner — quit on Randolph and the team as a whole during the 2007 collapse.

Despite the acquisition of Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, the team never seemed to find its way the entire season. Yes, there were the injuries (i.e., Alou, Pedro, Church), things just never felt completely right.

I knew going into the season that if and when the Mets went into a losing skid, 2007 would be rehashed and rehashed by the media. Now in the mind of Met fans and management, the “cause” of the problem has been lifted.

That GM Omar Minaya and team officials knew of their decision to axe Willie as early as Monday morning just points to how they never completed trusted or believed in Randolph from day one.

It has been widely circulated that Minaya has always sought to hire a Hispanic manager when he became the club’s GM. Names like Felipe Alou and current Washington Nationals skipper Manny Acta (a former Met coach) apparently were his original choices when Howe was let go.

Much has been made of the “latinization” of the team since Minaya took over. While the perception of “Los Mets” played into the firing of Randolph, the worse thing about the franchise is the “Yankeeization” of the team.

One of the reasons I became a Met fan as a kid was because of the boorish arrogance that spewed from that American League team from the Bronx. As one who is old enough to remember the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the 1973 “Ya Gotta Believe” squad, I’ve always known that no matter what the Mets do, New York will always be a Yankee town.

However, it seems somewhere between the 1986 title and the 2000 pennant, that Yankee arrogance has seeped over to Flushing. The “Fire Willie” Met fans that have been on him since day one to me are a huge part of that “Yankeeization” of the franchise.

I truly feel that most fans have forgotten what this team was like before Randolph took over in 2005. The last season of Bobby Valentine in 2002 and the two under Art Howe were amongst the worst in team history.

While you may question his managerial skills, you cannot question the fact that Randolph brought back a sense of dignity and class to the organization. Much like when a certain Presidential candidate’s credentials were being questioned, Willie (for the most part) tried to remain above it all.

No one is trying to tell the Mets how they should run their business. Hirings and firings have been a part of pro sports since the lions and the Christians. But at least the Christians were allowed some dignity at days end.

Much like Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame, Randolph wasn’t allowed to finish out his tenure. However, now angry Met fans and management have their pound of flesh.

They also will find themselves in that pantheon of sports teams that opponents will snicker at in the background. Just remember, they’re laughing at you not with you.

The only thing missing here is the late owner Robert Irsay and a boatload of Mayflower trucks parked n Anaheim.