Thursday, July 12, 2007

Strain Shows as Reality Hits Mets

Sports of The Times
July 13, 2007

I’m sure that Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph have had their squabbles. What general manager and manager have not?

But yesterday was the first time in three seasons the neighbors could actually hear the squabbling.

The occasion was yesterday’s news conference, held to announce the sacrificial firing of Rick Down, the Mets’ hitting coach, and the release of their ancient pinch hitter, Julio Franco.

Minaya, who can look at the darkest night and find a sliver of sunshine, put the best face on Down’s dismissal, saying Down had done an admirable and the recent poor results weren’t necessarily his fault, but something had to be done.

A few moments after Minaya left, Randolph walked in, his arm in a sling from shoulder surgery, with his typically serious demeanor. You knew within seconds that Down’s dismissal was not Randolph’s idea, and it did not receive the manager’s blessing or endorsement.

“The organization felt it was time to make a move to hear a different voice,” Randolph said. “Obviously we’ve been underachieving a little bit, the end of the first half, so it was time to make a move.”

The hitting coach in baseball is like the head coach in professional basketball, hired to be fired. Just as surely as a team will slump during the season, it’s just as certain that the hitting coach will get the blame — and often the ax.

The Mets have been in a teamwide hitting slump. This may not be Down’s fault, but you can’t fire the team.

If there was any ambiguity about Randolph’s position, it was cleared up near the end of the news conference when Randolph was asked how he felt about Down.

“I brought him here,” Randolph said.

“This is an organizational decision,” he repeated. “I brought Rick here, he’s my coach, he’s my brother.”

Brother. Here we go.

“Obviously there’s affection there; there’s an affinity there,” Randolph added.

During the course of his comments, Randolph repeatedly referred to the organization as “they” when describing Down’s firing.

“They decided they were going to make a move and that’s what they did,” he said.

Asked whether Down effectively communicated the team’s philosophy of patient at-bats, Randolph said, “He wasn’t, in their minds, getting it across.”

When someone asked a question that was really an answer, about a coach being blamed for a player’s lack of hitting, Randolph interrupted. “Come on, all these questions you know the answers to,” he said. “It’s always the players who have to be accounted for.”

Perhaps in the way of a fond farewell to Down, the Mets started off last night’s game with back-to-back home runs by José Reyes and Rubén Gotay in a 3-2 victory. When Randolph was asked point-blank whether the decision to fire Down was made against his wishes, he said, “I’m an organizational guy and I’m part of the organization.”

The oddest part of yesterday’s announcement was the news that the venerable Ricky Henderson, baseball’s career stolen base leader, is riding into New York on a white horse, not so much as a batting savior but as a well-respected mentor and sage.

Henderson’s role is yet to be determined; in some ways this betrays an indecision — or a debate — within the organization about where Henderson will best fit in and what he has that the Mets need. He will either be the new hitting coach or the first-base coach.

“Ricky basically said, ‘Omar, I’ll do what you think is in the best interest of the team,’ ” Minaya said. “He’s looking forward to the challenge.”

For the past two seasons, Henderson has tutored the Mets on base running. The results have been fabulous. José Reyes has solidified himself as one of the most dangerous base runners in baseball and David Wright has quietly become a consistent threat to steal.

The Mets are in first place and the ship is not listing. But what ails this team is something that is sensed more than it’s been seen. Something is out of kilter — perhaps an approach to hitting, an approach to competing, an approach to winning.

Last week Randolph publicly chastised Reyes and benched him after he didn’t run out a ground ball. Presumably, this is what the Wilpons, Minaya and, reluctantly, Randolph were reacting to.

What the Mets need from Henderson is not something as specific as being a hitting coach or a base-running coach. I’d make Howard Johnson the hitting coach and give Henderson a more fluid designation; I’d give him a position that will allow him to pull the Mets out of their spiritual doldrums. Make him the Minister of Winning or the Sultan of Soul.

Minaya promised that we’d know by today what Henderson’s role will be. The larger question over the next three months is, how will the Mets respond day in and day out to having to win, to not having the luxury of going through an extended slump? How will they respond to having to maintain a narrow lead or, to coming from behind?

This is a fascinating side of the Mets, a side fans have not yet seen: a team under pressure, a team in relative crisis. There is tension, discontent and a sense of uneasiness. The Mets, after a two-season honeymoon, are in a New York state of mind.



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