On Sunday, Sept. 23, Willie Randolph was standing alone in the visitors dugout on another unbearably muggy Miami morning—already 85 degrees, with 75 percent humidity. The New York beat reporters had just finished their 155th pregame briefing of the season in which, once again, they battered Randolph with questions about injuries and pitching problems.
Nine days earlier Randolph’s Mets were 6.5 games ahead of the Phillies. After a series of agonizing losses, the lead had withered away to 1.5 games.
Randolph, in his third year managing the Mets, was weathering the biggest crisis of his tenure.
“It’s nerve-wracking at times,” he told The Observer, the bags under his eyes more visible than ever.
He finished tearing off a label on a water bottle that he’d been picking at for the previous few minutes.
“It’s a little bit stressful,” he said. “But in a weird kinda way, I kinda like the stress. It’s always been like that in my career—as a player, as a coach. It’s like an adrenaline rush, really.”
During the slump, Randolph has appeared on TV and in the clubhouse as unflappable and even-tempered—even at the risk of looking like a “lifeless chump,” as a Daily News columnist put it. I asked if he had made any adjustments in the clubhouse during this slump—challenged players, or tried to tweak anything to force the team out of it.
“No,” he said. “I’ve been pretty consistent. I don’t think you have to change anything—you know who you are, you know how to handle it, and you know that you have to prepare yourself to get your players ready to play.
“For me, I don’t want to change anything,” he continued. “I just have to be myself, really. And that’s really all I have.”
The question now is whether that’s enough.
After last year’s joy ride of a division title, 97 wins, a Sports Illustrated cover, and a trip to game seven of the National League Championship Series, the Mets this season have been serviceable, if totally manic—at times full of nice winning spurts and at other times full of inexplicable losing streaks.
Depending largely on how the Mets fare over the course of the next week, Randolph’s refusal to depart from his calm managing style during their late-season swoon will come to be viewed either as admirable steadfastness or pressure-induced paralysis.
Randolph insisted his team is in playoff mode with a week to go, but by the accounts of several players, a pall of indifference settled on the clubhouse. First baseman Carlos Delgado told WFAN, “I think at times we can get a little careless. We’ve got so much talent I think sometimes we get bored.”
Other team leaders concurred.
“We have so much talent that sometimes we relax a little bit and then we get ourselves in trouble,” said Pedro Martinez in the Dolphin Stadium locker room.
“Sometimes when you’re a team as talented as we are—I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘bored,’ but I guess you can get complacent sometimes,” said Tom Glavine. “You don’t pay attention to details every now and then because you do have a ton of talent and think you can on most days do everything you wanna do.”
“If we needed a wake-up call,” he said, “we’ve gotten it.”
During this crisis, Randolph has played the role of cool customer, even as everything around him was unraveling—Lastings Milledge was suspended for three games after a spectacular meltdown with an umpire; Marlon Anderson was suspended for a similar tirade; the Mets made 10 errors in two days, during a poor spell in Washington.
Through it all, Randolph has seemed determined not to alter his routine.
Since the most recent funk began, there has been exactly one team meeting, in which Randolph gave a speech only reluctantly, according to the team’s general manager, Omar Minaya. He said that Randolph, as a rule, shies away from extraordinary sessions.
“Some teams will have a bunch of team meetings,” said Minaya. “Willie isn’t a team meeting guy—he likes to talk to guys one-on-one.”
Certainly, that’s his preferred mode of motivating his team, particularly the younger players. Typical of his style was a quiet office chat he had before the game on Sept. 22 with the speedy, young outfielder Carlos Gomez, to talk about a base-running blunder Gomez had made the day before.
It was a display of Randolph’s faith that even without any public scolding or raised voices, his players will get it.
“Well, I believe in my people,” Randolph explained to The Observer afterward. “Talent doesn’t always get you there. You have to believe in your people and know that they are good enough to get it done. That’s why I’ve been the way that I’ve been all year—because I feel like we’re the best team. We need to go out and prove that now.”
RANDOLPH HAS NEVER DISPLAYED the sort of water-cooler tossing, umpire-jostling managerial histrionics of a Billy Martin, Lou Piniella or Earl Weaver.
“Sometimes fans want him to get crazy, to throw things, to get into a fight,” said Minaya. “That’s just not Willie’s way.”
So what is Willie’s way?
At least in the hours that his clubhouse is open, he spends a lot of time alone.
The visiting clubhouse in Miami is unusual in that the coaches dress in the same room as the players, unlike at the locker room at Shea, where they dress in separate corners. During the Marlins series, while coaches Sandy Alomar and Rick Peterson changed in the same space as Delgado and David Wright, Randolph elected to change in his office.
Twenty-five minutes before the first pitch of a game against the Marlins on Sept. 23, Randolph left the visiting manager’s office by himself, a Gatorade cup in one hand and a pocket-size lineup in the other. On his stroll to the dugout, he paused briefly to stare at a suspended television showing an interview, on mute, with the Marlins manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
Later that day, after the Mets’ topsy-turvy, heart-racing 11-inning win, Randolph was the last to exit the clubhouse, walking to the team bus by himself.
In three days with the Mets, Randolph appeared to confer mostly with people who came to visit him first: Minaya, pitching coach Rick Peterson, bench coach Jerry Manual, owner Fred Wilpon and public relations head Jay Horwitz.
If anything, during the series in Florida, it was Minaya, the general manager, who spent a lot of time mixing with the team. After the Mets’ win against the Marlins in the final game of the four-game series, Minaya had conversations with Moises Alou, Carlos Delgado, Oliver Perez and Aaron Sele.
Shortly afterward, he walked by rookie reliever Joe Smith.
“What are you focusing on?” asked Minaya, in mid-conversation already.
“Keeping the ball down,” said Smith, a little sheepishly.
“O.K., well, have faith, baby!” said Minaya, as Smith smiled.
At the same time, the players seem to adore Randolph’s hands-off style.
“We’re professionals, we know what it takes,” said David Wright. “We know what’s on the line. I think we can motivate ourselves. We don’t need somebody screaming and yelling at us.”
“You hear so much about the cliché in baseball staying on an even keel,” said Glavine. “That’s what happens with a guy like Willie, who has been through the battles and knows what it’s like and stays on an even keel as a manager. That helps promote that kind of feeling in here where there’s no panic.”
“I like it when Willie visits the mound,” said John Maine. “He kind of gets what a competitor I am and he knows what to say when he’s out there.”
Wayne Coffey, a Daily News reporter who is co-authoring Randolph’s autobiography, to be released through HarperCollins next year, said there’s a lot more to Randolph than what he looks like to reporters and fans.
“There’s all this ranting that he looks so placid and emotionally detached in the dugout,” said Coffey. “Just because you don’t see him emoting and showing passion doesn’t mean it’s not there. What I’ve noticed is that he does a lot of his best work behind the scenes.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MESSAGES a manager sends by the way he deals with his players can’t be overstated. During the season, players have no life outside the clubhouse, and like anyone else working at a job, their motivation depends to no small extent on their morale.
As it has been described many times, the Mets are, if not a big, happy family, at least a diverse coalition of ethnic cliques that work and play well together.
After the Sunday win, for instance, Jose Reyes, Anderson Hernandez and Endy Chavez clustered in one group eating chicken and black beans; at the table next to them Shawn Green and Mike DeFelice played chess, while John Maine and Tom Glavine sat next to them.
Still, it’s striking how day-to-day the clubhouse spirit can be. After the win over Florida, the place looked like the Mets were on the verge of clinching the division: Music blared, players laughed, everyone reflected on how they managed to pull this one out.
But the next day back at Shea, after a lopsided 13-4 loss to lowly Washington, the clubhouse was almost entirely empty. The players who showed up to speak to reporters—Beltran, Mike Pelfrey, Wright, Paul Lo Duca—did so in whispers, despairing at their dismal performance.
“We just didn’t come out with any fire tonight,” said Lo Duca, of the loss to the fourth-place Nationals.
David Wright said the loss was “embarrassing.”
And even though Randolph exudes calm, it sometimes seems that the alternating extremes of relief and despair are taking a toll.
After the Sept. 20 game in Florida, when the Mets blew multiple leads and lost to the last-place Marlins, Randolph’s face was that of a man in his own personal hell.
“I saw that face [on Willie],” said New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, describing Randolph’s postgame interview. “It was the first time the words he said didn’t match how he looked. He looked like he got beat up.”
After a win two nights later against the Marlins, giving the Mets two in a row, Randolph said, with an exhale, “It’s nice to keep winning—sometimes you get one win and it seems like three.”
Randolph knows something about what it takes to succeed late in the season. Even early on in his 18-year career as a player, Randolph brought to the field a consistent, quiet ferocity that helped the Yankees win two championships and a pennant. And after his playing days were over, he was a steady presence at the side of the ultra-stoic Joe Torre as the Yankees won four World Series between 1996 and 2000.
Rightly or wrongly, Randolph seems to assume that all of his players have the same innate composure and desire to win that he always did.
Throughout the weekend in Florida, Randolph insisted his team was operating at playoff intensity, however much the results on the field suggested otherwise. And he said that his tonic from a bad loss, like the one against Washington on Monday night, is to get back out there and play baseball.
“This time of year, where we are in the standings, you just want to get back out there and play again,” he said at a press conference after the loss to Washington. “You just want to chalk this up and get back out there as soon as you can and keep playing.”
In the dugout in Miami a few days earlier, Randolph had reflected briefly on the vagaries of slumps, and what it takes to get out of them.
“You learn a lot about yourself with how you deal with adversity or pressure,” he said. “It’s not like I look forward to it, but if it’s here? Then that’s exciting. I like to see how I react on the fly—and how my people react on the fly. The ones who handle it are the ones who succeed.”
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