The last days of the Willie Randolph era, much like the Mets’ historic end-of-season collapse in 2007, were both tragic and horrible to behold.
On June 15, at the end of a long, seven-hour day at a stadium that will be pulverized and paved into a parking lot later this year, the Mets announced their attendance for a Father’s Day double-header at 55,438. That was laughably deceptive.
Seats were empty all afternoon, and by the time the second game started—the Mets dropped the first half of the double-header to the Texas Rangers—it was quiet enough for the players to be able to hear the yelled suggestions of individual fans: “Carlos! Hit it to third base! They got a shift.” There were about 10,000 people in the stadium.
The delightfully crappy home run apple in right-center field that lights up after a Met hits a homer was broken all day due to “electrical failure.” At least half a dozen times, the Shea public address announcer broadcast: “Attention, kids, the Mr. Met Diamond Dash after today’s game has been canceled.” On the field, when something good happened, the clapping was polite and scattered, like at Wimbledon, or a jazz concert. When something bad happened, the fans were silent.
“It’s almost like the stages of mourning,” said Adam Rubin, the Mets beat reporter for the Daily News, speaking in the press box on Sunday afternoon. “At first it was kind of like denial: We have a great team! The best team in the National League! We just have an American League lineup, O.K.? Then it was just bitterness and there was lots of booing. Now it almost seems that the crowd is resigned to this being it. They don’t even really have the heart to boo anymore.”
Then, things got even uglier.
A little after 3 a.m. on June 17, hours after the Mets beat the Angels in Anaheim to notch their third win in four games, the Mets e-mailed reporters to inform them that Randolph had been fired. The decision wasn’t surprising—the Willie Watch had been going on for well over a week. But the timing of the move was profoundly bungled, guaranteeing that the news would be less about Willie Randolph than about the organizational ineptitude that led to such a tortured and undignified end.
“It’s how they fired him that will be his legacy,” said Bob Klapisch, a columnist for the Bergen Record and co-author of a book about the 1992 Mets titled “The Worst Team Money Could Buy.”
“Not that this team collapsed under him, or that they’re off to another .500 start under a $140 million payroll, and they’re playing like also-rans. The way we’ll remember him is how he was fired in the middle of the night.”
IT ALL LOOKED so bright early on. In February, there was a Sports Illustrated cover with a beaming Johan Santana—the Mets’ biggest off-season acquisition ever—standing on a pitcher’s mound, over an enormous headline: “Happy Days.” The Mets were going to get to the top this year, erasing that monumental meltdown where the team lost 12 out of its last 17 games and missed the playoffs. Willie Randolph, the team’s likable 53-year-old manager, was going to be redeemed.
Now, the Mets and their $140 million payroll—the highest in the National League—stand at 34-35, good for fourth place in their five-team division. Randolph is out the door, to be replaced by bench coach Jerry Manuel.
They have been stunning in their mediocrity.
There have been many teams in the past that were worse than this team, but which had redeeming qualities: the 1962 Mets of Casey Stengel and (Marvelous) Marve Throneberry, or even the 1994 Mets of Rico Brogna and Jason Jacome.
There were also teams that were bad, and detested. The 1992 Mets of Bonilla, Murray and Coleman are the most famous example.
But the 2008 team has been disappointing in a totally unfamiliar way. They are boring and unenthusiastic and, as far as their famously passionate fans are concerned, they don’t inspire much of any emotion at all.
“This year, I just don’t care if they win or lose,” said Greg Prince, the 45-year-old author of the Mets blog, Faith and Fear in Flushing. “This hasn’t happened to me before. You know what really bothers me? I think for so many Mets fans, the Mets are their identity. I’m not a religious person, and I’m not a God-and-country guy. So if I’m a Mets fan, and if I don’t care if they lose, I start thinking, ‘Am I doing this right anymore? Am I a bad fan for not caring?’”
On June 13, the Mets actually played a lovely game, reminiscent of the exuberant, fun-loving team of 2006. Take, for instance, the fifth inning: Jose Reyes led off with an infield hit. Then Luis Castillo worked an at-bat long enough to buy Reyes time to steal second, and then grounded out to second base, pushing Reyes to third. David Wright came up, and with two strikes, he shortened up his stroke and lifted a fly ball to right field that brought Reyes home.