December 28, 2010
On the Beat
One Last Chance
Terry Collins understands he has a public perception problem. The new Mets manager is portrayed as somewhat of a madman because of the way he left his last managerial job more than a decade ago, resigning from the Angels late in the 1999 season not long after signing a two-year contract extension because of clubhouse unrest that bordered on mutiny.
"I know there are a number of people out there who think I'm some kind of monster," Collins said. "The people who know me, though, know that's not the case at all. I'm an intense and competitive person who wants to win, but I'm a human being like everyone else. I'm certainly not a monster."
There is no doubt that Collins' intensity and single-mindedness can rub people the wrong way, especially at first blush. Yet those who have gotten to know Collins generally like him and appreciate his passion for winning.
The Wilpon family, which owns the Mets, and new general manager Sandy Alderson believe in Collins and, ultimately, that's all that counts as they hired him last month to replace Jerry Manuel following back-to-back losing seasons. For his part, Collins is thankful to get another shot at managing in the major leagues at 61.
Collins has led the itinerant baseball lifestyle since leaving the Angels and eventually came to grips with the idea that he might not manage in the major leagues again. He was an advance scout with the Cubs, a coach with the Rays, spent five years working in the Dodgers' minor-league department (two as farm director), two years managing the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, one year managing the Chinese national team and last season as the Mets' minor-league field coordinator.
"I'd have to say as I look back, I had jobs to do and I did them the best I could," Collins said. "I love the game. I wanted to give back as best I could not matter what role I was in. I went to Japan for a reason and that's because I wanted to get back on the field and try to manage again. So when I came back from that, I thought, hey, look, I've given it my best shot. Had Omar not called me, I'd probably be playing golf today. But here I sit as a major-league manager. I owe that to Omar for giving me another opportunity, and certainly Sandy and the group here that gave me the chance to interview for the job. I'm certainly honored by it all."
Collins doesn't like to talk at length about his departure from the Angels. As he points out, it was 11 years ago and so much has changed, both for him personally and to the game in general. The short form is that many Angels players felt that Collins, at the behest of management, was granting special privileges to first baseman Mo Vaughn, who had been a big-ticket free-agent signing, and went to general manager Bill Bavasi and demanded he change managers. Collins managed the Astros for three seasons from 1994-96 before his three-season stint with the Angels and had problems with franchise icons Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in Houston.
However, Collins says his experiences of the last 11 years have enabled him to change. While he believes in the basic principles of discipline and sound fundamental baseball, he also feels he is better able to connect with players.
"I think my communicative skills are better, my patience is better," Collins said. "That comes from all the years of being the farm director and the field coordinator. You have to have patience in the minor leagues. So I think this will all help."
Collins' ability to get along with the New York media also figures to have an impact on his eventual success or failure with the Mets. While it doesn't match that given to the Yankees, the coverage of the Mets is extensive, as six beat writers travel with the team and their games are carried on WFAN, the originator of the all-sports radio format.
Collins also steps into the job at a disadvantage because former Mets second baseman and current minor-league manager Wally Backman was the favorite of both the New York media and fans to get the manager's job. The fiery Backman is never shy about expressing his opinions, which allows him to fill up reporters' notebooks and provide plenty of sound bites. Yet Collins says he is up to the challenge of managing in the nation's largest media market and in front of sports' most critical fans.
"This is the biggest and best stage to be on," Collins said. "That's why we got into this game. We all wanted to get there. Some guys maybe will not like it, but I think it's a tremendous challenge. I got into professional baseball when I was 21 years old because I like to compete. And I got this opportunity, and that competition is going to be something that will drive me throughout my reign here however long it will be."
That is the way Collins has always been, regardless of how he has been perceived.
"This is my passion in life, so nothing will ever stand in the way," Collins said. "As a matter of fact, I have told my wife that my mistress in life is baseball, so don't mess with it."
Collins then smiled, the type of smile not associated with a monster.
"She understands," he said.
The chances of the Brewers acquiring Zack Greinke from the Royals were theoretically zero. The Brew Crew was among the 15 teams that the right-hander and 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner had on his no-trade list as part of his contract.
Yet when the Royals struck a deal with the Brewers to acquire Greinke, he quickly gave his OK. In fact, he did not even use his no-trade clause to extract more money or years on his contract. He said he knew the Brewers were serious about winning in 2011 when they not only did not trade first baseman Prince Fielder, though he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, but traded for Blue Jays right-hander Shaun Marcum earlier this month.
"I think I made that decision to put them on the list too quickly," Greinke said. "I didn't think about it long."
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin admitted he had some trepidation in trying to acquire Greinke, knowing that a veto could dash a lot of work done by both himself and Royals counterpart Dayton Moore. However, Melvin knew Greinke was so special that it was at least worth trying to acquire him and giving up a package of players that included shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.
"I'm glad I didn't give up on it," Melvin said. "I knew it was going to be a costly trade—we gave up some very talented players—and if I was in (Moore's) seat I would have selected the players that he did, too. But the one thing about it is we're getting a young pitcher, 27 years old with a (2009 AL) Cy Young Award and someone who's very energized to be in the postseason."
The Brewers were in the postseason in 2008 for the first time in 26 years but have since had back-to-back losing seasons. However, that spotty record of success did not scare off Greinke, especially considering the Royals haven't been to the postseason since winning the 1985 World Series.
"The main reason I wanted to get out of Kansas City was I just wanted to win this year because as a pitcher you don't really know how long your career is going to be," he said. "I just really wanted to be in a place where they were playing to win games right away. So Milwaukee is obviously that place."
"We have people we can put in those positions," Melvin said. "And this was just too big an upgrade for the pitching staff to overlook that."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy had an enjoyable and relaxing Christmas with his family in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, where he has a home. For that, he is thankful after having a major health scare during the Winter Meetings.
Tracy collapsed early on the morning of December 7 at the Dolphin Hotel Lake Buena Vista, Florida. He was kept one night for observation and testing found that he had mild arrhythmia. Tracy left the meetings and went to his Lakewood Ranch home near Bradenton to rest with his family.
"There's no doubt I was scared," Tracy said. "It makes you think. But I'm fine now. I'm a heck of a lot better than I was at the Winter Meetings, that's for sure."
Tracy had just finished visiting with baseball friends in the lobby of the Dolphin when he began walking toward the elevator to go to his room. Suddenly, he collapsed.
"I just had a bad feeling where I started to get really dizzy," he said. "I got to the foyer and I was just hoping to brace myself on the pillar to keep from falling. My legs were jelly. The next thing I remember, I was on the floor looking up at everyone. It was fairly embarrassing."
Tracy spent some time between the Winter Meetings and Christmas in Denver to take part in personnel meetings and to attend the Rockies' holiday party. He also visited his new cardiologist, Barry Molk of Sky Ridge Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado.
"Dr. Molk, honest to goodness, his bedside manner is as professional as anybody I've ever been around in my life," Tracy said. "He's absolutely aware of what took place and I've had every test you could possibly think of and everything is positive. There is a 30-day window and there are a couple (things) he wants to look at and he wants to see me again at the end of January. But unless I'm told otherwise, I may push down the clutch and switch to yet another gear. I mean it. There is nothing to slow me down. I don't have to do things step-by-step. No way. I'm going to keep on plowing forward."
Reliever Jesse Crain jumped from one rival to another one when he signed a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox after spending his entire seven-year career with the Twins. Crain, though, said he did not think twice about leaving a team that has won the last two American League Central titles and even wondered aloud how much longer the Twins could stay on top of the division.
"I'm not exactly sure what direction they're going," Crain said. "They like to build from within, but with that said, I don't know what they will do. There are a couple of prospects coming up, but they don't have a lot of experience. It will definitely be interesting to see how it will play out. Losing me and (set-up reliever Matt Guerrier to the Dodgers as a free agent) will hurt them. The Twins were never really in the running—surprisingly or unsurprisingly. They weren't looking to sign a guy for more than $3.5 million a year. They were out from the beginning, and we didn't even negotiate with them. They have been smart with the way they do things, but we'll see."
Crain said the White Sox were easily the most aggressive of the teams that pursued him as he ultimately chose them over the Red Sox and Rockies. Having a third year added to the offer was the deciding factor for Crain, who was also was impressed by general manager Ken Williams' relentlessness.
"It wasn't something I was expecting, but it's something I'm really excited about," Crain said. "(By giving a third year) they showed they were really serious and that they really wanted me."