The Torborg Doctrine: Willie’s Time is Almost Up

Speculation about Willie Randolph’s hold on his job as manager of the New York Mets seems to be reaching a breaking point. First, Randolph was forced to apologize for public comments that, among other things, asserted that the SNY network, which is owned by the Mets, slanted coverage against him. Then he and the Mets proceeded to lose six of seven games to the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies.

When Randolph reached out to Mets ownership, his call was reportedly returned by General Manager Omar Minaya. And when Minaya, who traveled to Denver to be with the team this past weekend, was asked Friday if Randolph was in any imminent danger, he responded with a classic non-denial denial. Management is expected to meet with Willie Randolph Monday.

Randolph, 48 games into the season, can take no comfort from recent historical precedent.

The Mets have fired four managers in-season since Fred Wilpon purchased the team in 1980. Two of the four managed more than 48 games before getting the ax, while two managed fewer than 48. And Randolph’s situation is most similar to the latter pair.

The closest Randolph parallel is Davey Johnson, who was less than two seasons removed from managing the Mets to within one win of the World Series when he was fired in May of 1990. The Mets had lost to a Dodgers team that was a heavy underdog in the 1988 National League Championship Series. Then, despite most experts believing New York had the most talent in the National League, the Mets won less than 90 games in 1989, failing to win their division.

By 1990, questions about Johnson’s ability to motivate his team, a mixture of young talent and older veterans underachieving, made the Mets’ start unacceptable to ownership. Johnson was also blamed for failing to maximize the potential of Darryl Strawberry.

”I felt our ball club was underachieving,” then General Manager Frank Cashen told The New York Times on May 30, 1990. ”The time came to head in a new direction. I talked to the team about underachieving and having fire in the belly. I want this team to focus on winning because winning is what it is all about.”

Change the names and years, and the template fits Randolph’s tenure with the Mets, with two major exceptions. First, Johnson never publicly accused the team of setting him up for failure. But when Randolph told the Bergen Record that the SNY Network wants “to show me when somebody gives up a home run or somebody makes an error, so they want to see me [using profanity],” he was accusing the Mets of sabotage.

Davey Johnson also had a reservoir of goodwill from managing the Mets to a World Series championship in 1986. While Randolph frequently touts his history of winning, that has come as second baseman or bench coach. As a manager, 2006 is all he’s got.

And despite those advantages, Johnson got less time in 1990 than Randolph has already gotten in 2008. New York’s record is 23-25 this season—it stood at 20-22 when Johnson was fired and replaced by Buddy Harrelson.

Two seasons after Johnson’s termination, the Mets had invested heavily in the free agent market, and many publications, including Street and Smith’s baseball annual, had picked them to win the National League East. But under manager Jeff Torborg, the Mets struggled in 1992, finishing with a 72-90 record. The team was just four games out of first place heading into August, but finished the season 23-38 to land 24 games off the pace. The team even inspired a book, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, by the Bergen Record’s Bob Klapisch.

When the team retained Torborg, it was expected to improve in 1993. But a disastrous 13-25 start moved New York to fire Torborg, and replace him with Dallas Green.

When the Mets changed from Johnson to Harrelson, the move paid off, as New York finished the season 71-49, just falling short of a division title at 91-71. The move from Torborg to Green did little—the Mets finished 46-78 to end up 59-103, good for last place, behind even the first-year Florida Marlins.

In both cases, the managers were expected to finish atop the National League East, and were given less time than Willie Randolph has already had to turn the team around. So it may be that shortly after Randolph meets with management, SNY won’t have him to kick around anymore.

The Torborg Doctrine: Willie’s Time is Almost Up