Every fan remembers waking up on Tuesday, June 17, 2008 and hearing the news that the Mets had fired Willie Randolph at 3:00A.M., after they had just beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, improving their record to 33-34. The firing of Randolph, pitching coach Rick Peterson, and Tom Nieto (I mean, he was clearly a terrible first base coach, let’s be serious.) came on the heels of one of the worst collapses in professional sports history and a less than stellar start to the 2008 season. Jerry Manuel was hired as the new manager and management promised to do all they could to make sure the team would return to its winning ways.
Since that time, the Mets have gone through another September collapse, a nightmare season in 2009, and another unsatisfactory start this year. Jerry Manuel is now almost surely going to lose his job, and the Mets are in danger of becoming the club they were six years ago, right before Willie Randolph was hired.
After Randolph’s firing in ’08, mostly everybody agreed it was something that needed to be done. Writers were picking apart Willie, saying he couldn’t handle the pressure and didn’t possess what it took to be a championship manager. And the fans agreed. Why? Because…well…I don’t know…
If you look at Willie Randolph’s managing career for the final four months of his tenure (September 2007, April-June 2008) then, yes, his team was definitely not playing up to their expectations. But people seem to forget about the other two seasons and five months, a period of time where the Mets had won more games than any other NL team. So please, allow me to remind you.
Let’s start off with some basic stats. Willie Randolph’s career record as Mets manager was 302-253, good for a .544 winning percentage. Only Davey Johnson (.588) has a higher winning percentage. Let me put that in perspective for you: Willie has a higher career winning percentage as Mets manager than Gil Hodges (.523) and Bobby Valentine (.534), a man who many Mets fans want to replace Manuel. He was a Carlos Beltran swing away from going to the World Series in 2006.
These facts alone should prove that Willie was indeed a good manager, but I’m going to go even further.
Let’s flashback to 2005. The Mets had just finished the past season 71-91, they had traded their number one prospect for Victor Zambrano, and were totally irrelevant in the sports world. All of a sudden, Omar Minaya came in, overpaid to signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and was hailed as the Mets savior. But does anybody remember what the rest of that team looked like?
Well for starters, Doug Mientkiewicz was the starting first baseman, Miguel Cairo wound up playing 100 games and replacing Kaz Matsui as the starting second baseman, and Mike Piazza hit .251. Yikes! I didn’t even mention that the 3-4-5 starters were Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano, and the revolving door that was Kaz Ishii, Jae Seo, and Aaron Heilman, or that their closer was Braden Looper, or that Carlos Beltran finished with only 16 home runs and 78 RBI while hitting a pedestrian .266. Oh yeah, it was also only David Wright’s first full season in the league and Jose Reyes’s second.
Somehow, Willie Randolph managed that team to an 83-79 record and had them within a game of the Wild Card going into September. If you’re going to crucify him for 2007, then you also need to praise him for 2005.
Now let’s move onto 2006. It was one of the most successful seasons in Mets history: 97 wins, finishing 12 games ahead of the second place Phillies, and making it to Game 7 of the NLCS. Sure, the team was helped by the acquisitions of Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, and Billy Wagner. But allow me remind everybody of some of the starting pitchers the Mets featured in 2006 (number of starts in parentheses): rookie John Maine (16), Alay Soler (8), Oliver Perez (7) — who was 3-13 that season, Brian Bannister (6), Dave Williams (5), Victor Zambrano (5), rookie Mike Pelfrey (4), Jose Lima (4), and the late Geremi Gonzalez (4). Those guys pitched in a total of 58 games, yet somehow the Mets only lost 65 games all season! Can you see Jerry Manuel only losing 65 games with those guys making starts for him?
Then, of course, there was 2007. The season that, all of a sudden, Willie Randolph became a terrible manager. Nevermind the fact that he had to depend on the oh so durable Moises Alou to stay healthy and be a force in the lineup, or that Jose Reyes decided to turn into Rey Ordonez in Septmeber without warning anybody. Forget about the fact that Brian Lawrence and Philip Humber were starting games in the final two weeks of the season, or that the bullpen consisted of the following names: Jorge Sosa, Guillermo Mota, Aaron Sele, Willie Collazo, Carlos Muniz, Jon Adkins, and something called Lino Urdaneta. Yeah, right. Can we really put all the blame on the manager when all those things factored in as well? Should Willie have been held somewhat responsible for what happened in 2007? Absolutely.
But, what happened in 2008, when Willie wasn’t their manager? Oh, that’s right, the team did the EXACT SAME THING!
There were rumblings that Willie lost the clubhouse along the way. I can’t say if this was true or not, since I’ve never stepped foot into the Mets clubhouse at any point in my life, but I can have my doubts. Who did he lose? Carlos Delgado, who has always been known as a curmudgeon wherever he goes? Billy Wagner, who was disappointed with the team in general (I think we all remember his “why don’t you go talk to them over there? Oh that’s right, they left.”)? Ruffling those guys feathers should come as no surprise. But what about the rest of the team? Jose Reyes and David Wright both credited Willie for developing them into All-Stars and Carlos Beltran has never had a bad word about anyone.
Since the firing of Randolph, the Mets have not only gotten worse, they are right back to where they were in 2004. Was he the best manager of all time? No, but he wasn’t terrible. In fact, I would even say he was a very good manager. The one story I will always remember about Willie came during the end of the 2005 season. The Mets had just lost to the Cardinals and were officially eliminated from playoff contention. On the way out of the stadium, Willie was walking with David Wright and told him to remember the feeling and let it fuel him for the rest of his career. I don’t think either of them could have imagined the feeling everyone has now.