No Way Should Willie Go

Samori Benjamin

Willie Randolph is one of only four African-American managers in major league baseball.

It’s sad that we have gotten to this point with the manager of the New York Mets. Reading all the stories about his fading job security and listening to sports talk radio, which has become the epicenter of fanatic central, and hearing popular hosts and fans calling for the manager’s job. Willie Randolph is as good as it gets when you look at managerial hires, and he’s the right man to lead a baseball franchise. Why wouldn’t he be? We all know his resume by now, and it’s brilliant. Two-time champion as a player for the Yankees, playing 13 seasons for the team during the chaotic Bronx zoo days when George Steinbrenner was in his hay day as the take no non-sense win at all costs boss. Then all the years after that manning the third base coaching box under Buck Showalter and then later the great Joe Torre as they won four world series championships, doing it under the most scrutinized microscope that there is to play under in sports. Before all of that the manager of the New York Mets was a regular New Yorker raised in the city of Brooklyn learning the life lessons of what it’s like to make it in the big apple. Through all of that Randolph managed to do everything with a cool collected demeanor, so much so that even at a time like this with some of the media vultures in New York City calling for Mets ownership to fire him they still all tell us how great of a man the manager of the New York Mets is.

Willie Randolph has experienced every type of pressure situation that there is to experience and if anyone is qualified to manage in New York it’s him without a doubt. But this was not the opinion of a lot of media types and fans in the fall of 2005 when the Mets were searching for a new manager. Here was a guy right under everyone’s nose paying his dues and gaining experience with the most successful franchise in sports history, a New York team at that, and there were still many amongst us who offered up every excuse known to man, from “he is a Yankee” to “he is too sensitive and laidback” as reasons why he should not have gotten the job. Randolph was every bit the obvious choice for Mets manager then as Brack Obama is the obvious choice for president of the United States now. Then we hear the stories of how Willie went on as many as 12 managerial interviews before he got the Mets job and with his credentials was rejected 12 times, and we wonder how the manager of the Mets could have thoughts of race floating around in his mind. Willie was hired then because he was the best man for the job, and he still is the best man for the job.

Before Randolph and the man who hired Randolph, general manager Omar Minaya, came to Queens in that fall of 2004 the Mets were a flat out laughing stock in a city that was dominated by the Yankees. The franchise was coming off last place finishes in two of the previous three seasons and taking abuse from the New York media which is commonplace if you are a loser in the big city. On the team’s flagship radio station in New York City the most popular tandem in all of sports talk radio made it a daily cause to dismiss the Mets and present them as clowns. Randolph came onboard and brought instant credibility to the franchise and accountability to the ball club. The Mets went out and won 83 games in Randolph’s first season improving the win total by 12 games from the previous year. This in a season in which the face of the franchise Mike Piazza was at the end of a marvelous career, prized free agent Carlos Beltran had a terrible year at the plate hitting just 16 homeruns and driving in 78 runs, and power hitting first baseman Carlos Delgado had not become a Met yet. In 06’ everything came together for the Mets as Randolph guided a talented bunch to a 97 win regular season and a division title for the franchise for the first time in 20 years as they ran away with the best record in the national league. Randolph was perfect up to that point, leading the ballclub to the national league championship series that year in just his second season on the job. Some of the luster was lost when Willie’s boys were defeated in that NLCS by the underdog but eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. The Mets were supposed to win that series, and when you dominate the regular season the way that team did anything but a World Series appearance is a disappointment. Sometimes it takes awhile to get to the mountain top, what are you going to do? In just two seasons the Mets had gone from the bottom of the national league to national league favorites. From the joke of the big apple to people desperately ready to declare them the best team in the city. All this under Willie’s watch.

Even up until midseason of last year, before the late season collapse, when the Mets had a huge first place lead atop their division, when the manager’s record was still stellar, he still had his critics. Even last September before the collapse was complete, and the Mets were fighting to hold their diminishing first place lead the team’s chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, son of team owner Fred Wilpon, made some disparaging remarks to the media about Willie’s job performance which turned into a mini fire storm. You can be sure that deep down the manager thought he wasn’t getting the credit that he deserved.

Sometimes people talk about all the talent Randolph has had to work with during his tenure with the Mets as if it’s supposed to take away from his successful record as manager. But we have seen a number of talented teams in every sport fall flat on their face when they were supposed to be leaders of the pack. When Willie came on board the entire franchise needed direction and a mindset change and that’s exactly what he brought. The leadership and communication skills that he brings to the table are only lost on a blind man. From day one he made it clear that he was a manager who was going to be vocal with his players and let them know individually the role he envisioned for them on the ball club. Just because the television cameras don’t catch him chewing out players in the dugout doesn’t mean he’s not getting into their butts behind closed doors. With all the media attention nowadays there is always a camera waiting to catch a manager in his most vulnerable emotion, displaying the image to the world for any and everyone to critique. Willie knows this. If all his years growing up and playing professionally in New York City taught him anything it’s not to give the public fodder to talk about. So he plays it cool in the dugout in front of the cameras, not showing up his players to the world, and you bet his players appreciate that.

We are two months into the baseball season with four more left to play. Willie Randolph now finds himself on the hot seat despite the success he has had in Queens because his team has opened up this 2008 campaign struggling the way it did last September when they couldn’t close out the national league east division when they had a 7 game lead with 17 games to play. They couldn’t make good and make fans forget about that loss to the underdog Cardinals in the NLCS the previous year. Instead they delivered another blow to Mets fans and ownership by having the worse collapse in franchise history.

Now after last season’s collapse Willie has to understand that Mets fans will have a short fuse this season with little tolerance for subpar play. That’s the way New York fans are. Shortly following the aftermath of the collapse 07’ there were a couple of days in there when people whispered about whether ownership would do something drastic and let Willie go. Cooler heads prevailed, but those in New York’s mainstream media put the thought out there that Willie would be on a quote on quote short leash this season. So the fact that the wrath is coming down on the manager and his team so early in the season should be no surprise for him. Managers and head coaches in professional sports are always the first to take the hit for a team’s disappointing performance. You cannot get rid of an entire team so the manager becomes the easiest to get rid of. Whether it’s right or wrong the only thing that tends to stand up in the jury of fans, media, and front office executives are wins and losses.

When Randolph wondered aloud if Mets fans like him in an article written by the Bergen Record’s Ian O’Connor a couple of weeks ago, and raised the question if he was being criticized harshly by fans and media because of his skin color , he might have let hidden emotions of baseless criticism from the past come out at this time when he feels he has to fight. Fight for the job he loves. His perfect opportunity, the job of managing the New York Mets in his hometown, the dream job. The only problem is we can’t say race is a part of this equation. New Yorkers want someone to pay when things turn disastrous for the sports teams they root for and any manager white, black, or Latin would be catching the same heat that Willie is feeling now under the same circumstances. That’s why when he brings race into the mix with what is happening with the team this season he gets a lot of people calling him delusional. Willie even mentioned Joe Torre and referred to his laid back demeanor and asked why Torre was never criticized for it while he himself is constantly ripped for it by Mets fans. But does Willie not remember the calls to sports talk radio by Yankees fans the last few years every time the Yankees began a season struggling, or took a disappointing postseason loss? Torre too was harshly criticized for not showing enough emotion.

Mets ownership is now a bit peeved with Randolph over comments he made to O’Connor in that same article about the Mets owned television broadcasting company SNY not portraying him in a good light during their telecasts, never showing him with any emotion. Mets ownership had a sit down discussion with Willie this past Monday and he came out of it still the manager of the ball club. He is one of only four African-American managers in major league baseball today and the first and only African-American to manage one of New York’s professional baseball teams in the city’s history. That means a lot to him. The Mets have been the picture of diversity in major league baseball since the fall of 2004 when Willie and Omar Minaya, the first and only Latin American general manager in major league baseball history, came to town. Two years later they looked as if they were going to write a magical script when they ran away with the national league regular season crown. The two men now find themselves under a lot of pressure, especially the manager because they are always the first ones to go. The chance is still there for Willie and Omar to make history and they better turn things around fast before we see a new and less inspiring dynamic leading the New York Mets.

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