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June 22, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Dropping the Axe

by John Perrotto

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Nearly a week has passed since the Mets fired manager Willie Randolph, and egg is still being wiped off the organization's collective face. The Mets have been castigated inside and outside the industry for the way they handled the move, having Randolph take a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles after last Sunday's doubleheader with the Rangers at Shea Stadium, then dropping the ax on him after a win over the Angels.

While general manager Omar Minaya's reputation is taking a beating for his manner of execution, sources close to the Mets insist that the man who has gained the reputation of being one of the more likeable and approachable executives in the game was only carrying out the orders of owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon. The sources indicated that while Minaya wanted to keep Randolph, Jeff Wilpon planted enough media leaks suggesting Randolph would be fired that it turned up the heat on the GM. The reports reached such a crescendo by Sunday and caused such a distraction that the Mets' only move was to get rid of Randolph. Randolph certainly did not help his own cause by saying in May that SportsNet New York only showed shots of him passively sitting in the dugout during Mets' broadcasts, and suggested that race played in a part in those decisions.

Minaya did not fly on the team charter on Sunday night, another indication he wasn't ready to fire Randolph. Instead, he took a commercial flight Monday. While Minaya has publicly said the decision was his, Randolph isn't so sure. "I don't know. I really don't know," Randolph told reporters the day after his firing. "I can only go by what I hear, what is coming out of [Minaya's] mouth, or whatever. But if he says that, then I guess that's the case. I don't know."

The two met following the Sunday twin bill, and Randolph said he asked Minaya to fire him then if he wasn't sure he wanted him to be the manager. Randolph said Minaya told him he would make a decision sometime during the six-game road trip. "At the time, I felt, the way he was talking to me, that I was pretty secure for the time being--whatever that means," Randolph said. "It could have been, in my mind, maybe the Yankee series [which starts Friday] or the All-Star break."

Randolph is owed the remainder of his $2 million salary for this season and $2.5 million in 2009. He would jeopardize being paid if he criticizes the organization, so he took the high road when asked about the way his firing was handled. "I can't control how things are handled," Randolph said. "I can't really get caught up in how it's done. It is what it is and I'll just move on. It's not the way I would handle it, but the bottom line is that it is what it is."

Bench coach Jerry Manuel was promoted to interim manager for the rest of the season, and certainly has solid credentials. He was 500-471 in six seasons as the White Sox's manager from 1998-2003, and was American League Manager of the Year in 2000 when he led Chicago to the AL Central title.

However, Manuel sounded like a man who had already been angling for Randolph's job during his introductory news conference, as he rattled off a laundry list of things he wanted to do differently. That led to speculation that Manuel may have also maneuvered to play a hand in Randolph's demise, that on top of even more speculation that assistant GM Tony Bernazard has ingratiated himself so much with the Wilpons that he could replace Minaya before season's end.

From his announced to-do list, Manuel said he would rest his star players more, give his relievers specific roles, and use last year's collapse in which the Mets blew a seven-game lead over the Phillies in the last 17 days of the season to lose the National League East as a rallying point instead of burying it in the past. Manuel made his presence felt in his first game on Tuesday night against the Angels, as he used David Wright as the designated hitter after he had played every inning of the first 69 games of the season at third base. Manuel also lifted Jose Reyes after he slightly strained a hamstring while singling to lead off the game, causing the shortstop to throw his batting helmet in disgust.

Manuel stressed that the Mets also need clubhouse leadership. However, Manuel also said leadership would have to start with him. "I have to step into that role first," Manuel said. "I have to show them what leadership looks like in uniform. And I think once that happens, it will flow down into the club."

Having been a Mets' coach for four years gives Manuel familiarity with his roster. However, he also realizes his relationship with the players now has to change since he is the man in charge. "Being a coach, your relationship is a lot different," Manuel said. "But they have to respect that. And now that you've moved into the office of manager, you haven't changed, but there is a definite line that has to be drawn in terms of how they can approach you and how you approach them."

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Managers get hired and fired so frequently--including three in a five-day span this past week--that the human element of someone losing their job is sometimes forgotten. However, that came into focus Friday when the Blue Jays fired John Gibbons. General manager J.P. Ricciardi seemed dispirited after breaking the news to Gibbons and then holding a press conference to discuss the move. "It's a really, really tough day and something like this is never easy, especially someone who has been a friend for more than 20 years," said Ricciardi, who was roommates with Gibbons when they played short-season A-ball together in the Mets' farm system after being drafted in 1980.

However, Ricciardi felt it was time to make a move after the Blue Jays had lost five in a row to drop to 35-39 and into last place in the American League East. "We feel like we've underachieved," Ricciardi said. "We feel like we have a good ballclub and there's a lot of season. We felt we needed to make this move while we still had a chance to turn things around."

Ricciardi replaced Gibbons with Cito Gaston, who was Toronto's skipper from 1989-97. The choice was a bit of a shocker, as Gaston has not managed since being fired by the Blue Jays in 1997. He led Toronto to four post-season appearances during his nine-year tenure from 1989-97, including the franchise's two World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. After interviewing for multiple jobs and getting turned down, Gaston had given up on the idea of managing again, and had spent recent seasons as a goodwill ambassador for the Blue Jays and a special assistant to the president and CEO. "It got to the point where I just quit pursuing jobs," Gaston said. "I figured if teams wanted me, they could call because I was tired of calling them. No one called, and I'm thankful that J.P. is giving me this chance. My heart has been always with the Blue Jays and if I had my choice of where I would want to manage again this would be it."

The Blue Jays' problem has been scoring runs, as their 3.95 per-game average is 14th in the AL. Meanwhile, they are third in runs allowed at 3.87 per game. Ricciardi observes, "I really felt this was the best team and the best lineup we've put on the field since I've been here. It's a mystery to me why we're not scoring runs. It's a mystery to everyone."

"Some people will look at changing managers like it takes the pressure off everyone, but I don't see it that way," Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells said. "We cost someone his job. When you make this move, it's a pretty clear sign that you better get this thing turned around."

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John McLaren wasn't shocked when he got fired as the Mariners' manager on Thursday, three days after GM Bill Bavasi was jettisoned. However, he still has a hard time explaining how the Mariners have the worst record in the major leagues when they came into the season thinking they could overtake the Angels in the AL West. "It doesn't make a lot of sense," McLaren said in a conference call with reporters a day after his firing.

However, anyone who has visited the Mariners' clubhouse this season has noticed a lack of chemistry among the players. McLaren believes that has been a driving force behind the losing. "I think we have a good group of guys, but I think there's a little tension and friction in there, a little jealousy," McLaren said. "That's for the guys to work out. We [the coaching staff] tried to, and weren't very successful. I think they have to do it on their own."

While McLaren wouldn't name names, those close to the Mariners say that a number of players feel that the two Japanese imports, catcher Kenji Johjima and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, receive special treatment. Taciturn left-hander Erik Bedard has also reportedly done little to endear himself to his new teammates after being acquired from the Orioles in an off-season trade.

McLaren, though, stressed that he was not trying to push off all the blame for the terrible start on the players. "I want to make this crystal clear: the only reason I mentioned this is not to defer any criticism for myself, but to make this team better," McLaren said. "If they can get in that room and work some issues out, I think they'll be better off. I care about those guys. I think they're good people but I think there are some issues in there."

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Major League Baseball handed out its first two fines for violations of its new procedures to speed the pace of games, as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and Astros manager Cecil Cooper both got nicked for $1,500 this past week.

Gardenhire was fined for an incident that happened in last Sunday's game with the Brewers that led to him being ejected by home plate umpire Brian Runge. Runge called Brendan Harris out on strikes in the eighth inning with the Twins trailing 3-2 in a game they would eventually lose 4-2. Harris asked for time and stepped out of the batter's box but Runge waved for Guillermo Mota to pitch and he threw strike three.

"I was in shock. I honestly couldn't believe what I saw," Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "For one thing, my guy's got his head right next to home plate, and the ball goes right by him. This speed-up stuff, that's all good and fine, but if he gets hit in the head when he's not looking? What are we going to do then? My guy's looking down, not even looking at the pitcher and the ball goes right by him. You tell me that's right? That's embarrassing."

Harris was confronted by home plate umpire Greg Gibson the previous night about stepping out of the box, making the Twins wonder if the infielder was being targeted by the umpires the next day. "He shouldn't be targeted ever if he's not looking at home plate," Gardenhire said. "If he's tired of it, walk over and say, 'That's it. There will be no more timeouts.' But letting a guy throw the ball when a guy's looking at the ground, that's wrong."

Cooper's fine was for not having someone ready to warm up the pitcher while catcher Brad Ausmus returned to the dugout to put on his equipment after running the bases during a game against the Yankees on June 14.

Cooper said home plate umpire Eric Cooper was wrong in his written report to the commissioner's office on the matter. "What he said I said is not what I said," Cecil Cooper said. "I think my comment was, 'there's nobody available here.' At the time there's no one. He says I refused to send anybody. I didn't refuse. There was nobody available. So what am I supposed to do? And it was done like that. It wasn't like, 'give me a minute' or 'give me 30 seconds.' It was like, boom, 'I'll make sure I report this.' And I said, 'well, go ahead and report it.' So that's how that came about."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners would like Johjima, signed to an albatross-like three-year, $24 million contract extension by Bavasi in April, to move to first base to replace Richie Sexson, a strong candidate to be released. However, Johjima wants no part of playing first and will now likely sit most of the time while rookie Jeff Clement sees most of the action at catcher. … The Indians still haven't declared themselves buyers or sellers in the trade market, but among the teams reportedly lining up to trade for left-hander C.C. Sabathia should he become available are the Yankees, Phillies, Cubs, Red Sox, Rays, and Angels. … The Tigers have interest in free agent right-hander Freddy Garcia, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and expected to throw in front of scouts sometime next month. … The Rangers will consider trading outfielder Milton Bradley if they fall further out of the AL West race, though they would still have interest in signing him as a free agent in the winter. … The Yankees are considering bringing Randolph back as a special assistant to the organization for which he played and coached for 24 seasons. … The Yankees have lifted the pitch restrictions on rookie right-hander Joba Chamberlain now that he has made four starts since being moved from the bullpen. … The Orioles are expected to soon exercise their 2009 option on manager Dave Trembley's contract.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: While some in the Giants front office would like to see Rick Peterson, fired as the Mets' pitching coach Monday, brought in as a consultant to work with former protégé Barry Zito, GM Brian Sabean is apparently not keen on the idea. The Pirates could eventually be a landing spot for Peterson, as he grew up in Pittsburgh and his father, Harding, was once Pittsburgh's GM. … It was thought there was a possibility that Reds third baseman Edwin Encarnacion would be traded, but GM Walt Jocketty says he is an untouchable along with right-handers Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, first baseman Joey Votto, and center fielder Jay Bruce. … Padres CEO Sandy Alderson has shot down the idea that GM Kevin Towers might be let out of his contract, which runs through next season, to take the same job with the Mariners. … The Cubs are willing to package left-hander Rich Hill and outfielder Matt Murton in a trade for a starting pitcher or center fielder, though they have not inquired about Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp lately. … The Brewers plan to keep Salomon Torres in the closer's role once Eric Gagné comes off of the disabled list, which could happen this week.

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Interesting facts as the 12th week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • The Red Sox and Celtics are only the fourth MLB and NBA teams from the same city to win a championship within a 12-month span, joining the New York Mets and Knicks in 1969-70, the Oakland Athletics and Golden State Warriors in 1974-75, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers in 1981-82.
  • The Orioles have won 17 games after trailing by two or more runs, more than any team in the major leagues. They had only 18 such victories all of last season.
  • The Yankees' Mariano Rivera became only the third AL pitcher in this decade to convert his first 20 saves opportunities in a season, joining J.J. Putz, who converted 29 straight for the 2007 Mariners, and Jonathan Papelbon, who converted 20 in a row for the 2006 Red Sox.
  • Papelbon is the third Red Sox pitcher to have at least 20 saves in three different seasons, joining Dick Radatz, who did it four times from 1962-65, and Jeff Reardon, who did it three times from 1990-92. Papelbon is also only the sixth pitcher to have at least 20 saves in each of his first three full seasons in the major leagues, along with Gregg Olson (five seasons from 1989-93 with the Orioles), Radatz, Billy Koch (four seasons from 1999-2001 with the Blue Jays, and 2002 with the Athletics), Todd Worrell (four seasons from 1986-89 with the Cardinals), and Kazuhiro Sasaki (three seasons from 2000-02 with the Mariners).
  • Nationals infielder Aaron Boone is one hit away from 1,000 in his career, which would make him the fourth member of his family to reach that milestone. Grandfather Ray Boone had 1,260 hits, father Bob had 1,838, and brother Bret had 1,775.
  • When the Nationals' Dmitri Young and Twins' Delmon Young met in a three-game series this past week they became the fifth set of brothers to face each other in a major league game during the last three seasons, along with Corey and Eric Patterson, Bengie and Yadier Molina, Bengie and Jose Molina, and J.D. and Stephen Drew.
  • Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun recorded his 150th RBI in his 182nd career game, making him the fastest to reach that milestone since Walt Dropo did it in 155 games for the Red Sox from 1949-51.
  • The Orioles are 1-10 on Sundays this season, getting outscored 55-26. They have lost their last 10 on Sunday.
  • Mets catcher Robinson Cancel's two-run single that proved to be the game-winning hit in the second game of a doubleheader with the Rangers last Sunday was his first hit in the major leagues since September 21, 1999, when he was playing for the Brewers and singled off the Phillies' Chad Ogea.
  • Tigers left fielder Marcus Thames' single Friday against the Padres ended a personal streak in which eight straight hits were home runs, the longest such streak since Mark McGwire had 11 in a row for the 2001 Cardinals.

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Three series to watch this week with rankings according to Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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