Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Overnight Massacre: No Class By the Mets (Or Their Fans)

In 1985, George Steinbrenner said that Yogi Berra would be the Yankee manager for the entire season. The Yankees got off to a horrible start, 6-10, which makes the starts of these last 4 seasons look like gangbusters by comparison. And George fired Yogi.

Yogi had been fired as a manager before. He knew: That's life. That's baseball. That wasn't the issue for him.

The issue for him was that George sent Clyde King, a former big-league pitcher, a former Yankee coach, briefly interim manager in 1982 and by that point part of the front office, to tell Yogi.

George didn't call Yogi up to his office to tell him man to man, face to face. George didn't go down to Yogi's office to tell him in person. George didn't even call Yogi and tell him over the phone. (At least he didn't fax Yogi his firing, the way Pat Riley quit on the Knicks -- and they called Dennis Rodman "the Worm.")

That was why Yogi stayed away from Yankee Stadium for 14 years, because George was running things and wasn't man enough to tell Yogi to his face that a change had to be made. It wasn't the decision, which may have been right; it wasn't even the timing, which may have been a little too soon; it was the method. The method was madness.

In 1999, prodded by a dying Joe DiMaggio and a few others, George finally made amends. He told Yogi he should have told him in person. And Yogi had the perfect words to describe the feud: "It's over."


Now, Willie Randolph has been fired as Met manager. It happened this morning, at 3:11 AM New York time, after a win -- the Mets' 2nd straight win! -- on the opposite end of the country, when very few local fans were liable to be awake, and after the New York papers had their morning editions ready to hit the streets.

This is reminiscent of June 15, 1977, the Midnight Massacre, when general manager M. Donald Grant traded Tom Seaver for Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman. The best righthanded pitcher in the National League (the best lefty being Steve Carlton, and it's a toss-up as to which was better) and the best player in Met history (still, 31 years later) for a good young outfielder, the defending NL Rookie of the Year and a good starting pitcher, a good-field-no-hit 2nd baseman, and a reserve outfielder. None of those 4 players turned into a long-term Met regular.

Grant also traded slugging (but strikeout-prone and atrocious-fielding) 1st baseman Dave Kingman to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Bobby Valentine and pitcher Paul Siebert, who'd pitched all of 72 innings in the majors. Valentine was damaged goods, and Siebert was totally forgettable.

Henderson, Zachry, Flynn, Norman, Valentine and Siebert: By Opening Day 1983, none of those guys were still with the Mets, while Seaver and Kingman were hardly done, and had increased their fame with other teams -- and both had come back to the Mets, with considerably less success than their first go-arounds, and both would be productive after leaving the Mets again.

Valentine would also come back, as the manager, and lead the Mets to a Pennant. He ranks 3rd among Met managers in winning percentage. Davey Johnson is 1st. Who's 2nd? Willie Randolph.

Trades like that, made by Grant, left the Mets a dried-out husk of a team that had won a World Series in 1969 and a Pennant in 1973, and left Shea Stadium so sparsely-attended it was called Grant's Tomb. Tug McGraw, a star with those '69-'73 Mets, said that when he came back with a far superior Philadelphia Phillies team and saw over 40,000 empty seats at Shea for a weekend game against the (at least geographically) next-closest NL team, a very good team that should have attracted some fans even if the Mets couldn't, it was a very sad thing.

It hadn't yet turned around before Fred Wilpon and his then-partner Nelson Doubleday bought the Mets from Grant and the Joan Payson estate. Even then, it took 5 full seasons to turn around.


Willie Randolph did lose control of some of his players. But he didn't cause any injuries. Nor did he make any of the personnel decisions that led him to not have adequate replacements.

He should have been fired, because he was no longer able to do the job well enough to get this team into the Playoffs. But whether it was Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon or Omar Minaya making the decision, that decider should have been a man about it. He shouldn't have made Willie get on a plane, fly all the way across the country, win his second straight game, and then tell him it was over. And that decider should have been man enough to face the media in the light of day.

I also think it's very telling what happened with the last notable strategy decision that Randolph made as Met manager.

Sunday afternoon, 2nd game of an interleague doubleheader (forced by rain) with the Texas Rangers at Shea International Airport. Tie game, bottom of the 6th, go-ahead runs on base, pitcher's spot coming to bat, and the Met bullpen less reliable than at any time I've ever seen it in 32 seasons of watching this franchise.

His starter is Pedro Martinez, who's approaching the 100-pitch mark, the magic number where he goes from throwing like Sandy Koufax to throwing like Sandy Duncan. It's the National League, which is still so stupid as to not put in the designated hitter.

Willie pulls Pedro back, and sends up a pinch-hitter, and it's Robinson Cancel. No, not Robinson Cano, although the Yankee 2nd baseman, as bad as his hitting has been at times this season, would still have been a better choice without the hindsight we have now. Robinson Cancel is a backup catcher, who'd just been called up, having spent nearly all of his career in the minors, not having had a major-league hit in 9 years. This says less about Willie's strategy than it does about Omar's personnel decisions.

And the Met fans boo. And they chant, "We want Pedro!" (As far as I'm concerned, you can have him.) And 65 percent of Met fans on the SNY website vote to leave Pedro in. (Have I mentioned before what I think of the intelligence of the average Met fan?) And Met broadcaster Gary Cohen called it "a major problem."

But it works. The decision to send Cancel up to pinch-hit for Pedro defies all logic, and the opinions of 65 percent of Met fans, but it works. He gets a hit, and the Mets go on to win the game, and Randolph gets to manage for one more day. (But, as it turns out, for only one more day.)

And then, having called the situation "a major problem," but then seeing it work out in the Mets' favor, Cohen calls Randolph "tremendously gutsy." Puh. Leeze. As Lloyd Bentsen might have put it if he were a Met fan, "Senator, you're no Bob Murphy."

And still, there are Met fans who say, "Witless Willie doesn't know how to manage in the National League." As if not having the DH made the NL something holy while the American League was an apostasy.


Well, Met fans, you, the Flushing Heathen, got what you wanted: "Witless Willie the Yankee" is gone. And your new short-term manager is Jerry Manuel, who has won exactly as many Division Titles as Willie Randolph (1, with the 2000 Chicago White Sox), and whose postseason record is 0-1 in series (Willie's is 1-1), and 0-3 in games (Willie's is 7-5). And you don't have a clue as to who your long-term manager is. One of many things about which you don't have a clue.

Willie was the 1st black manager in New York major league baseball. Perhaps the words of Martin Luther King are coming to his mind: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."

I hope Willie Randolph is invited to the last Old-Timers' Day at the original Yankee Stadium, and -- with all due respect to Yogi, Whitey, Reggie and even the recovering Bobby Murcer, all of whom are deserving -- gets the biggest ovation of any guest. I hope it's loud enough for every Met fan to hear.

And if that happens, I don't ever again want to hear about how Met fans have any "class" while Yankee Fans have none. It will be a long time before Met fans, and the Met organization, prove they have any class.

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