Over the next few weeks, explorations of the reasons why behind the untimely death of the Mets on Sunday will be revisited more often than the latest theories Kennedy assassination. The last out had scarcely been made before WFAN call-in lines were lit up with disappointed, irate fans demanding the demolition of the roster and the dismissal of Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya. Both, it was said, were too passive-Minaya in not upgrading a clearly shaky pitching staff at the trading deadline, Randolph because he didn’t yell more at players like Jose Reyes, who sleepwalked (.205/.270/.333) through September.
We heard a lot about yelling in New York this summer. Through early July, when the Yankees were still struggling with a sub-.500 record, it was frequently observed that if only old Joe Torre was more of a confrontational, in-your-face kind of guy he might be able to light a fire under his lethargic team. At the time, with the Mets riding high, nothing was said about Randolph being catatonic on the bench or in the clubhouse, and as soon as the Yankees started winning, this particular criticism of Torre disappeared. While we cannot know with absolute certainty what happens behind clubhouse doors in the absence of the press, it is likely that neither manager altered his demeanor in response to this criticism. Randolph didn’t yell and the Mets lost; Torre didn’t yell and the Yankees won.
There is some truth in accusing Randolph of passivity: perhaps he could have given Ramon Castro more playing time over lame duck backstop Paul Lo Duca, reduced Shawn Green‘s playhing time earlier in the year, and no one forced him to rely on Guillermo Mota to the point of self-destructive self-parody (though Minaya vocally supported Randolph’s efforts to pitch Mota until it was somehow 2003 again). Yet, beyond these small changes, there were limits to what Randolph could do. Yelling would not have turned back the clock on so many elderly players on this team. It is for this reason that, though the Mets’ collapse will from now on be mentioned in the same breath as that of the 1964 Phillies, it is a very different animal.
One of the things we learned in researching and writing It Ain’t Over is that for managers there is a very fine line between panic and passivity, between brilliant improvisation and seat-of-your-pants stupidity. Even a manager intent on improving his team needs options with which to work. That seems obvious, but in the absence of players who can play according to a particular strategy or are an improvement on a fading incumbent, there’s not much that can be done. It is in those situations that the cry for a Captain Ahab/Wolf Larsen-style manager–who will thrash his players into achievement–is at its most wrong-headed; as Billy Martin said, in baseball you have your mules and you have your racehorses, and no matter how much you beat the mules, they’ll never be racehorses. Billy beat them anyway, but his point still stands.
Leo Durocher turned the Giants around in 1951 by calling up Willie Mays and subsequently moving Bobby Thomson from the outfield to third base. Thomson wasn’t Brooks Robinson, but he had experience at third, and the club’s previous tenant at the hot corner hadn’t hit and was injured; Mays was very young but a great prospect. Some managers, less flexible in their thinking, might not have pulled the trigger on these moves, but they were there for the making.
Conversely, when the Phillies famously blew a 6½-game lead with 12 to play in 1964, their manager, Gene Mauch, was trying to improvise as well, only he lacked options. After the Reds swept the Phils in their series over September 21-23, Mauch’s team still had a three-game lead with eight to play over ten days. What Mauch now decided to do was change up his starting rotation. He had six possible starters; of these, Rick Wise was ruled out because he was an 18-year-old rookie, another was injured, and Mauch had developed an irrational dislike of a third. That left him with three starters, the veterans Jim Bunning, Chris Short, and Dennis Bennett. Mauch decided on a sequence that would have Bunning and Short starting twice each on two days of rest. The results are now legendary. The two pitchers weren’t as good on short rest as they might have been otherwise. The Phillies lost their next seven games, giving them ten consecutive losses dating to the sweep by the Reds. The losing streak climaxed in a three-game sweep by the Cardinals, after which the Phillies were 2½ games out with two to play.
Durocher looked like a genius in his time; Mauch looked like an idiot in his. Mauch pretended a wall was a door and tried to force it open. Had Durocher’s choices for the outfield and third base been less promising than Mays and Thomson–had they been, say, Lastings Milledge and David Newhan–he might have looked like an idiot too. The same is true for Casey Stengel and his multitudinous pinch-hitters and position-switches, Earl Weaver and his three-run home runs, or Tony La Russa and his 20,000 pitching changes per season. These managers had the talent to make good on their strategic predilections; Mauch’s Phillies did not. He would have been better off taking his chances with the teenager or the guy he didn’t like, but he also couldn’t bring himself to make those choices.
The Mets provided Randolph with little flexibility, though in view of Minaya’s postgame protestations on Sunday that he and Randolph are a “team,” it’s hard to know how culpable Randolph is in the construction of the Mets’ rosters. One of the older teams in baseball in 2006, the Mets kept the team largely intact for 2007. Thirty-three year-old outfielder Cliff Floyd was replaced by 40-year-old Moises Alou, while 35-year-old Steve Trachsel was replaced, at least initially, with 23-year-old Mike Pelfrey. Otherwise, with the notable exception of Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran, the roster contained more than its share of 35- to 41-year-olds. When these players predictably became injured or faded as the season went on, neither the farm system (Triple-A New Orleans featured Sandy Alomar Jr., Mike DiFelice, Fernando Tatis, Chad Hermansen, and Andy Tracy) nor a tight trade market could supply useful alternatives. Minaya was able to swing a deal for second baseman Luis Castillo to replace the injured and already declining Jose Valentin-a deal that might nevertheless have been counterproductive given Castillo’s lack of punch and how well Ruben Gotay was hitting at the time-but that was all.
Despite their concentrated burst of losing at the end of the season, going 5-12 over their last 17 games at the same time that the Phillies were going 13-4 to overcome a seven-game deficit, the Mets’ failures do come down not to a lack of managerial histrionics, complacency on the part of the players, or Tom Glavine doing his best impression of Lefty Williams in the eighth game of the 1919 World Series, though any of these things might have been a secondary contributor. The real culprits were age, injuries, and a lack of flexibility. Consider Brian Lawrence, a pitcher who missed all of last year and hasn’t shown much in the majors since 2002. After both Pelfrey and Jorge Sosa pitched their way out of the rotation, the Mets tolerated six starts from Lawrence, losing five of six (including the Phillies on August 27 and the Nationals on September 17). Simultaneously, the moment was somehow never right to give Pelfrey an extended second chance or try Philip Humber.
In the days to come, the failure of the Mets to hold their lead will be examined closely, and decisions like their use of Lawrence, the precipitous yanking of Sosa from the rotation, the equally hasty demotion of Joe Smith in July, the failure to redeem Pelfrey, try Humber, or advance pitching prospect Kevin Mulvey more rapidly from Double-A (that is, to do what the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy) will come under close scrutiny. Yet we cannot know if any of these moves made the critical difference. In this the Mets differ significantly from the 1964 Phillies. They may not have solved their problems, but they didn’t create problems where none existed-with the notable exception of the roster itself.