Meet the Mess
Willie Randolph has come under fire in New York, but the stoic Mets' manager should survive the season
ON THE EVE of last weekend's Subway Series, with the Mets underachieving by the reckoning of both their fans and front office, Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon called manager Willie Randolph and G.M. Omar Minaya together for a serious pep talk. Despite a payroll of $138 million the Mets have struggled to stay above .500, and Wilpon's message went something like this: "We've committed the dollars. You guys have got to turn it around, and turn it around quickly." And by "you guys" he mostly meant Randolph.
Says Randolph of that conversation, "I reassured [Wilpon] that I'd work my butt off to get the team back to playing the way it can."
With the Mets' stretch of mediocrity dating back to last June, and a percolating perception of player indifference and a clubhouse divided, Randolph's job status has become a hot topic only 19 months after he brought the team within one game of the 2006 World Series. Randolph has been around New York baseball longer than virtually anyone not named Steinbrenner (he won two rings as a Yankees player and four as a coach), so he should understand why he's become a back-page fixture in the tabloids. Yet he seems surprised to be wearing a bull's-eye. "I thought it would take a seven-game losing streak, at least," he says.
"We aren't that bad," he adds. "Everyone else is having problems too." That includes, of course, the crosstown Yankees, who bought Randolph a back-page respite last weekend when they were resoundingly swept by the Mets.
Unlike the consistently upbeat and charming Minaya, a complaint about Randolph is that he isn't engaging enough and tries to come off as if he's infallible. Specifically, some club officials are displeased by Randolph's disinterest in reviewing strategies after games. (Randolph says he hates doing it immediately after losses, when he's upset.)
While replacements have already been loosely discussed by some Mets officials (bench coach Jerry Manuel is a logical successor), Minaya recently told an executive from another team that Randolph isn't going anywhere. Publicly, however, Minaya only says he "expects" Randolph, whose contract runs through 2009, to remain in charge.
Meanwhile, Randolph's strengths and weaknesses will continue to be dissected. His critics argue that the team's lack of fire reflects Randolph's in-game stoicism and that he's too acquiescent to umpires. Some Mets officials were upset that Randolph didn't leave the dugout to back up Moises Alou after the outfielder was ejected from a May 14 game against the Nationals. (Randolph says ball-strike calls can't be argued and that it's inaccurate to call him passive.)
"Judge me on my record," Randolph says. "I'm going to do everything I can to get the team to the championship, no matter what arrows and bullets come my way. I'm pretty good at dodging bullets."
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A RARE BLAST A sweep of the Yankees bought Randolph (inset) and Reyes a respite.
[See caption above]