Several weeks ago, when the Mets were playing at their enigmatic, underachieving best, I had a conversation with the team’s general manager, Omar Minaya. He couldn’t explain the Mets’ problems any better than anyone else. He was as mystified as anyone.
Before the season, I picked the Mets to win the National League pennant. The way they played in the first two and a half months of the season there was no way they were going to win even the division championship.
But I continued to believe that the Mets were better than they were playing, and I said to Minaya, “You need to win 12 of 15.”
I meant the Mets had to win 12 of 15 games to get back in the race and demonstrate that they were breathing and they should be taken seriously. A while later, as the Mets were showing signs of life but still not playing well enough consistently, I repeated my thought to Minaya but became even bolder.
“If you win 12 of 15,” I said, “you win the division.”
Compassionate man that he is, Minaya kindly did not tell me I was crazy. As the Mets were in the process of winning their last nine games before the All-Star break, I reminded Minaya of my comment to him. He laughed. “I hope you’re right,” he said.
Their nine straight victories before the break left the Mets needing only three victories in their next six games to achieve my 12-of-15 prediction. In their first post-break game, the Mets showed that the three days off didn’t affect them. They rallied for a 10-8 victory in Cincinnati and pulled into a tie with Philadelphia for first place.
Their rapid rise to the top – they were five and a half games behind the Phillies when they began their streak – is one of the more remarkable events of the baseball season. It sure has fooled Mets critics, who were certain that the team had fallen into a comatose state and had squandered the season.
Last month, the Mets were being referred to as the $138 million busts. People who were not paying the players that $138 million were making an issue of the money. The implication was that the Mets were not earning their salaries and that Minaya had wasted Fred Wilpon’s money.
People don’t talk about the $209 million Yankees. They don’t question the Steinbrenner style of spending. That the Yankees spend an enormous amount on players is a given. The Mets have never spent like the Yankees. Even now the Yankees’ payroll is 50 percent more than the Mets’ payroll.
But why suddenly were their critics bringing money into the discussion. If anyone should be talking about money, it’s the Wilpons, Fred and his son Jeff. But if they have anything to say they are keeping it private. Money has no place in the discussion because the critics aren’t the ones who sign the checks.
Focus instead on wins and losses and the way the Mets have been pitching and hitting. Maybe they will stop pitching and hitting the way they have been, but there’s no reason why they can’t continue. They are a good team and are just proving that to themselves.
All teams have good streaks and bad streaks. The better teams have more good streaks than bad streaks, and the worse teams have more bad streaks than good streaks. Based on the way the Mets have played in their good streak, they should have more such streaks in them.
Could they have had the streak and come to life under Willie Randolph? It saddens me to say it, but I don’t think so. It saddens me because I have known Randolph since he became the Yankees’ second baseman in 1976 and I have always liked him and found him to be an exemplary human being. I thought he was treated unfairly in his efforts to get a managing job, and when he finally got the Mets job I quietly hoped he would do well.
He did well until the last 17 games of last season. The Mets squandered a 7-game lead by losing 12 of their last 17 games. After being in first place virtually the entire season the Mets slipped out of the lead on the third-to-the-last day.
Randolph was unable to avoid the historic disaster. He was unable to execute any moves that might have produced one more victory, which would at least have given them a first-place tie. In the first two and a half months of this season, Randolph seemed helpless, too, in figuring out what to do, how to get his well-paid players playing up to their capabilities.
Before the Mets fired Randolph, Mets fans wanted them to fire him. When they fired him, they were criticized for the way they fired him, making him fly cross country for one game, then firing him in the middle of the night.
Minaya did not fire Randolph in the middle of the night. He fired him at about 11 o’clock, after the game with the Angels had ended, not at 3:15 a.m., which was the time in New York when the Mets announced the change.
Managers have been fired later. George Steinbrenner fired Gene Michael at 1 a.m. in 1982. Many other managers have been fired after night games – in all time zones.
In all of the fuss over Randolph’s dismissal, though, no one addressed the more important question: Was Minaya right in making the move? Again sad to say, he had to do it if he wanted to salvage the season. Over the course of nearly half of the season, the Mets showed no indication that they could win under Randolph.
Had Randolph been managing for Steinbrenner, with developments as they occurred with the Mets, he would have been fired long before June 16. Steinbrenner looked at early returns, and if he didn’t like them he concluded that nothing was going to change unless he changed managers..
Have the Mets burst to life because of the change, because of Randolph’s replacement, Jerry Manuel? It’s true that Manuel hasn’t hit or pitched for his players, but he apparently has created a different environment in which the players can rediscover their talent and use it the way they are capable of using it.
The winning streak was no accident.