Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Mets: Restoration of a Team and Its New Manager


       By Ross Newhan

       It is probably too simplistic to put the description of "intense" on Terry Collins as if it's his first name.

       Is any man the same man he was yesterday, and there were undoubtedly lessons Collins took out of his experience over almost six straight years with the Astros and Angels when there were incidents of clubhouse friction involving his demanding, in your face style at times, and Collins, facing a clubhouse revolt at one point over the Angels plans in 1999 to rehire him, ultimately resigned in September fed up with the bickering that had marked one of the most tumultuous seasons in that club's history.

      Collins hasn't managed since, and now he puts his intensity, if all of what he once was still fits, under the tabloid microscope of New York as manager of the Mets, a team that has lost its National League East dominance to the Philadelphia Phillies and is undergoing a front office and field transition in leadership while needing to get younger at several positions but still retaining veteran presence at others.

     In the 10 years between Anaheim and New York, Collins has been involved in player development with the Dodgers and Mets (a position of which there is no question about his ability) and there was a brief managerial stint in Japan. He might have been hired as manager of the Dodgers before Grady Little was hired in 2005 if then general manager Paul DePodesta hadn't been fired first. Now DePodesta is vice president of player development and amateur scouting for the Mets under new general manager Sandy Alderson and undoubtedly had a voice in the selection of Collins over another internal favorite, former Met Wally Backman.

    Collins got a two year contract, and Backman will continue to manage in the system, so there is a shadow that Collins will have to deal with while trying to bring a more urgent attitude to the clubhouse after the firings of the more laid back former managers Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel.

    "Terry Collins demands that players play the game the correct way with respect and total effort every time they put the unform on," former Angel shortstop Gary DiSarcina, the heart of the team in the 90s and now an assistant general manager, said in an e-mail communication. "He will hold players accountable for their actions on the field, and that is a manager's job. If any of his players have a problem with playing the game the correct way then that player needs to re-evaluate why he is playing in the first place. I mean, Terry has very few hard, be on time. I don't think that is too much to ask at any level."

       The Angels finished second under Collins in both 1997 and 98, overcoming 23 injuries and other internal problems in '98. Players came out of it complaining that they were tired of finishing second, of the self satisfied attitude that had infiltrated the team.

       There was need for a big hitter and front line pitcher. Then General manager Bill Bavasi missed on the pltcher but received permission from the Walt Disney Co., something of an interim owner, to award Boston free agent Mo Vaughn with a six year $80 million contract that was the biggest in club history at the time.

      A new enthusasim followed, but it went south in a hurry. DiSarcina broke a wrist in spring training of '99 and missed half the season. Vaughn sprained an ankle as he slipped down dugout steps attempting to catch a foul ball on opening night and was never the hitter the Angeles had anticipated. Center fielder Jim Edmonds lost half the season when he required shoulder surgery in April as teammates grumbled that he should have had the operation  done at the end of the '98 season, and Tim Salmon tore wrist ligaments in in May and did not return until after the All-Star break.

    As the offense crumbled, word broke that the Angels were prepared to extend Collins' contract, prompting a mutinous move in which several players questioned the decision in private meetings with Bavasi, who was not deterred, giving Collins a one year extension with an option for another. The bickering didn't stop. In a series at Cleveland, several players told Collins they would not play if Vaughn was in the lineup. The night before, in a brawl precipitated when closer Troy Percival had hit David Justice with a pitch, Vaughn was in the clubhouse and made no move to reach the field in time to help his teammates, prompting Percival to say that you find out who's with you and who's not when a fight breaks out.

    The threatened boycott was one too many incidents for Collins, who had also heard players complain that since he had never played major league baseball he couldn't really relate to their emotions. He resigned in September, prompting club president Tony Tavares to compare the Angels clubhouse to a day care center, accusing the players of quitting on themselves and crediting Collins with more integrity than many of his players.

    "I kicked butts, patted butts and tried everything I knew to motivate them," Collins said at the time, "but a manager today has only one hammer--the lineup card. The players have got to want to win and to be successful. I'll miss coming to the ballpark every day but I won't miss the bickering that went on this season."

    In reflection, DiSarcina cited the early injuries, the losing that became infectious and the finger pointing that went along with it, and wrote in his email, "we all could have handled things differently. Terry did not lose control. There was no revolt or mutiny. We were losing games and I think everyone's emotions got the best of them. It was a disappointing season...and we got caught up in the distractions, worrying about things that were out of our control instead of trying to succeed on the field."

   Collins was not the only person to show integrity. Bavasi quit rather than fire an array of veteran scouts that Tavares insisted had become too old to do their jobs. Bill Stoneman was hired as general manager, and he hired Mike Scioscia as manager, The Angels won their first World Series two years later and have enjoyed their most successful decade ever under owner Arte Moreno.

   "I think it goes without saying that 1999 was a difficult season for the organization, both on and off the field," Tim Mead, senior vice president of communication, said. "In reflection, I think it was one of those situations where so many things went sideways, and try as we did, things just couldn't be corrected in a timely manner. Everyone shared a portion of responsibility."

   The Angels transitioned into one of the most successful franchises in baseball, and now Terry Collins gets a chance to help restore the Mets pride and prestige, and, perhaps, his own managerial reputation.

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