NY Baseball Misconceptions- Willie the Winner

Written by Tough Tony

“I don’t worry about Willie as manager. He knows how to win.” Said by a shrinking percentage of Mets fans.

The number of Mets fans who utter that phrase are growing fewer by the day. The average Met fan has no patience for anything less than winning after their historic collapse to end last season. Even Johan Santana got booed pitching in his first game at Shea Stadium this year. But some more level headed Mets fans, and at one time the majority of Mets fans, had a blind faith in Willie Randolph as manager because “He knows how to win.”

The faith that fans have in a baseball manager is perplexing. In Joe Torre’s last few years as a Yankee manager I watched him mismanage the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox by refusing to play Kenny Lofton and refuse to take chances on the base paths up a few games in the series. Over his last three years I watched him mishandle the bullpen, almost destroying the arms of Tanyon Sturtze and Scott Proctor by over using them, and up until 2006 it would take Chinese water torture to get Torre to play a young guy over a struggling veteran. Yet I still had this strange sense that he was the right man for the job because he was Joe “freaking” Torre.

And there was at one time a similar faith among Mets fans in WIllie Randolph: He has a winning background so he knows how to win, so the Mets would win. Right?

But how does that really make any sense? Sure he managed four championship Yankee teams as a third base coach and he has a heck of pedigree as a former Yankee team captain, five time all star and two time world series champion. He won the silver slugger award in 1980 while leading the league in walks. He was a hell of competitor and defensive second basemen who appeared in the post season in six different years with three different teams. But breaking news: that won’t turn you into Casey Stengel.

It’s only fair to point out Willie didn’t win all the time. He didn’t exactly do much winning in the decade of the 80’s. In his 11 post season series as a player Willie batted .222 and while he “knows how to win” he also has been on some abysmal teams. The 1992 Mets come to mind (though that was the end of his career) and the 1989 Dodgers. So it’s not like when he left Yankee land it was automatic that he brought the winning with him. He manned second base during some of the Yankees leanest years so he certainly knows how to finish in fifth through second place.

Think of some of the super star players who went on to coach in their respected sports. Ted Williams, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas are the top three legends turned bad coaches or managers. Mickey Mantle coached first base as a day job for the Yankees while he pursued his alcoholism at night. I think all these one time stars understood the game as well as some one like a Tony La Russa or Bobby Cox. I don’t think it was a lack of empathy or lack of fundamentals that was missing in these superstars turned coaches. Their playing credentials just didn’t carry them to wins as managers like some people assumed.

Part of this faith in Willie Randolph the person could be that he has some of that Yankee mystique that the Met fan says he hates but really envies. He won two world series as a second baseman in 1977 and 1978 and appeared in the post season as a Yankee base coach every season from 1995-2004. Winning four championships in the process. He certainly has post season experience. But obviously there is a difference between coaching third base and managing in the playoffs. One might liken it to co-piloting an airplane while its on auto pilot and and then actually being in charge of landing the thing.

More than any other profession football head coaches seem to get their jobs from being part of winning teams. Almost every head coach today seems to have coached under Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells at some point. Almost every coach from the Patriots 3 Super Bowl teams is a head coach some where else now. I understand the thought: Winning breads winning. But even successful horse trainers will tell you just because the mother is a stud doesn’t ensure the next of kin won’t be an injury prone mess that you have put out to pasture eventually.

And on the human side of things: Just because you won in one place doesn’t mean you win another. (Did Lou Piniella dream those years as Devil Rays manager?) And I think most sports fans understand this concept. Willie Randolph was a great player and a fantastic third base coach but I am just trying to show how perception is in the eye of the beholder. Or what ever the phrase is.

Mets fans can certainly be a fickle bunch. After becoming manager Willie brought the team their first above .500 finish in three seasons. He led them to game seven of the NLCS his second full year but then in 2007 the team blew a seven game lead with 17 games to go. Listening to WFAN after a Met loss this year sounds like a suicide prevention line. Even the female Mets fans are depressed. Have you ever heard women who sound like Fran Drescher complaining about a baseball manager? Nails on a chalk board sound better, more coherent and more sober.

But before the collapse, Willie was viewed as a pretty good manager. And while the ready to jump off the Queensboro Bridge fans are all ridiculous to be panicking this early, it’s the few that are not panicking that I am addressing.

Willie is a smart baseball manager. He happens to have a good record managing the Mets in one run games. In 2006 he had you tied going into the ninth inning of game seven of the NLCS. One inning away from bringing you to a World Series and his second best pitcher out of the bullpen served up a home run to a weak hitting catcher. Did Willie throw that pitch?

I just want to assure you that if Willie guides this ship to the promised land it won’t be because he won as a player and bench coach for the Yankees. It will be because your bullpen doesn’t keep blowing games and because Carlos Delgado finds his swing again.

Until those two things happen though I guess it’s time for another call from a frantic Mets fan from Flushing. Go ahead Franny, what’s on your mind?

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