On March 4 on his New York TV sports talk show, Mike’d Up on NBC’s New York affiliate, Mike Francesa snubbed New York Mets skipper, Willie Randolph.
Francesa was talking about the Mets’ prospects this season. He observed that they had gotten by in 2006 with great hitting, and that “the Mets” would paste together a starting rotation, and had a great bullpen. He pointed out that the team had an aging starting rotation for the coming season, with the caveat, that if necessary, “Omar will make a move” for a starting pitcher. It was always “the Mets,” whoever they were, as if the managing were done by an anonymous committee, vs. “Omar.” Not once did Francesa mention Randolph.
Now, I was not a believer in Willie Randolph when he was named Mets manager in 2005. Randolph had never managed; not in the big leagues, and not in the minors. The Mets had just endured two years of the Art Howe fiasco. I had never wanted them to hire Howe in the first place, and if I didn’t want owner Fred Wilpon taking a chance on a green manager prior to Howe, that was doubly the case after he had passed through town. (And Howe was experienced! He’d been a failure in Houston and a success in Oakland.)
Wilpon had likely hired Howe because he was the anti-Valentine. Bobby Valentine had been one of the best managers in Mets history, and he got the team to the World Series in 2000 for the last time, after a 14-year drought. (I can’t seem to recall the name of the team they went up against.) Valentine was brilliant and had a maniacal work ethic, but he could be sneaky and was too much in love with his own cleverness, like the time he started circulating a rumor that slugging catcher and team captain Todd Hundley was partying too late at night, or another time when he got thrown out of a game, and thought he could fool the ump by sneaking back onto the bench wearing a Groucho disguise. Still, he gave his all for Wilpon, and the team gave its all for Valentine. Valentine’s stressing of the fundamentals and preparation had much to do with the team having one of the greatest infields of all time under his stewardship (John Olerud at first base, Edgardo Alfonzo at second, Rey Ordonez at shortstop, and Robin Ventura at third).
But Wilpon hated Valentine, and let his animus cloud his judgment. Apparently, he decided that he would hire the diametrical opposite of Valentine, and so he hired Howe, a guy who didn’t belong in New York.
When Wilpon fired Howe after two years of misery, I wanted him to hire a proven winner. When he went with Randolph instead, I was afraid he’d put race politics over winning. After all, Major League Baseball obliges every team with a managerial opening to interview at least one black candidate, even if the owner has no interest at all in the guy. Violation of the affirmative action program results in fines. The Tigers paid such a fine back in 2000. They had an opening and knew exactly who they wanted to fill it – fiery Phil Garner. So they interviewed only one man for the job. They offered the job to Garner, and he accepted. But because the Tigers didn’t dissimulate to some poor black guy looking for a manager’s job, they had to take a hit. Conversely, had they lied to a black candidate, and told him they were legitimately interested in him, the league would have been most happy, and the team could have saved thousands of dollars.
Willie Randolph once got such an interview offer. To his credit, Randolph asked the executive on the phone if he was being invited simply to fulfill the league’s quota, and the executive had the decency to honestly answer the question. At that point Randolph said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
Randolph’s 2005 Mets had a shaky beginning, losing their first five games, but then went on a winning streak, and by the end of the season, were 83-79, their first winning season since 2001. Simply put, Willie Randolph turned around a franchise that had been mired in a loser mentality. The following year, the Mets went 97-65, won their division for the first time since 1988, and in the League Championship Series against the Cardinals, were an inning away from going to the World Series.
Last Sunday, Francesa momentarily departed from his Yankee-sniffing norm, and devoted a real segment to the Mets, and while he didn’t totally snub Randolph – that would have caused a scandal – he might as well have. In the midst of an extended interview with Mets GM Omar Minaya, Francesa mentioned Randolph for all of three seconds, noting that the Mets had granted him a contract extension (through 2009).
Look, I’m not a mindless Willie Randolph fan. For instance, he favors Latin players over whites. Randolph had a rule that there was to be no playing of music in the locker room. Yet, when some Hispanic players flouted the rule, he did nothing. So, the rule doesn’t apply to Latins.
Of course, it was Omar Minaya’s decision to stack the team with Latin players in the first place, and they can play. Minaya, one of the smartest GMs in the game, has put together a very competitive team. But as I have previously noted, some of the players he variously signed and traded for – specifically Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado – hold the Mets’ predominantly white fan base in contempt. You know, the folks buying the tickets and filling Shea Stadium? (Jose Reyes, by contrast, treats the fans royally.) But that’s on Minaya, not Randolph. And Minaya is the guy Francesa is treating with kid gloves.
Randolph also has an irritating tendency to abuse pitch-arounds, in walking less-than-intimidating hitters (e.g., number eight hitters, in order to pitch to the opposing pitcher), a tendency which blew up in his face a few times last season.
Given that subtle (or unsubtle?) pressure from Omar Minaya may have had something to do with Randolph’s ethnic double-standard, he takes half a rap for that sin, grievous though it is. And given that the occasional unnecessary intentional walk is overshadowed by the effort most of his players put out for him almost every day, and the results he has gotten, Randolph is certainly one of the better managers in the game.
So, Mike, what’s the story?