By Mike Steffanos
There has been a lot of discussion over this recently, and I thought I'd throw my two cents in. Apparently, Joe Girardi is the favorite for manager of the year in the National League because the Marlins were such a surprise this season. What Willie Randolph has accomplished with the Mets is no big deal, because he had a team that was supposed to win. While I take absolutely nothing away from the fantastic job Girardi has done with such a young team, I have to question why it's more impressive to win when nothing is expected and many things go right than it is when everything is expected and many things go wrong.
Funny, I don't remember a ton of pundits picking the Mets to finish ahead of the Braves this year, and saw more than a few predictions that the Mets' iffy starting pitching would keep them out of the playoffs entirely. Then when Brian Bannister and Victor Zambrano went down, the forecasts of impending collapse came fast and furious. Soon the Mets had more men passing through their rotation than Heidi Fleiss had passing through her bedroom. Carlos Delgado was in a horrible slump for 2 months of the season, Cliff Floyd has slumped or been hurt for much of the year. Tom Glavine pitched poorly for much of June and July and then gave the Mets a huge scare in August. All spring we were hammered with how vital Pedro Martinez was to our chances, yet he has only pitched 120 innings so far. The Mets went through 3 second baseman before they found one worthy of the job -- coincidentally enough, he was a guy just about all of us besides Willie Randolph had written off.
With the Mets sitting on 90 wins and on the verge of clinching their first October in six years, it almost seems there was an air of inevitability attached to this season. Don't make that mistake -- there were many times this year when the Mets seemed to be teetering on the edge of disaster, with any one of them being a potential banana peel on the road to this "inevitable" division championship. There was a long stretch of a full quarter of the season stretching from the terrific road trip in early June through the All Star break where this team struggled to play .500 ball as pitchers bombed out of the starting rotation, key players slumped or went on the DL and everyone in the media was talking up the Phillies and/or the Braves. There were countless times this season when things could have gone horribly wrong.
There's nothing "sexy" about Willie Randolph as a manager. He's not a "genius", he's not a relentless self-promoter, and he's not a terrific in-game manager -- though he is becoming better at that all the time. He doesn't give out wonderful quotes to the local media. He doesn't put himself out in front of the team, and refuses to take credit for the accomplishments of his ballplayers. He's surrounded himself with a tremendous coaching staff and isn't afraid to give them props for their efforts. He's also the beneficiary of some savvy moves by one of the best GMs in baseball.
As much as anyone on this team, including that terrific GM and all of the wonderful players who were brought here, Willie Randolph has created a professional atmosphere where winning can flourish -- and that has been the exception, not the rule, in the history of this franchise. In his two years here, Randolph created an atmosphere where young players like David Wright and Jose Reyes, young stars like Carlos Beltran, veteran elite ballplayer like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado, and even surprises like Jose Valentin can all flourish. He demanded a lot from his players, but also supported them. He wasn't supposed to be able to handle Pedro Martinez, he was supposed to be too sensitive and thin-skinned to do it in New York, and all does is win.
New York is a tough place. No offense to Joe Girardi, but Miami is a freaking picnic for a baseball manager -- except for the jerk owner. Hardly anyone cares enough to criticize there, while here the criticism is loud and often tinged with cruelty, and the expectations are onerous. Even winning here doesn't get you off the hook, where every fault or perceived error of Randolph's is mercilessly picked apart ad nauseam, while any accomplishments are glossed over as if they were "inevitable". There's no such thing in sports, folks.
I wasn't thrilled when the Mets hired Willie Randolph after the 2004 season. I didn't think he had the experience, and everything I had heard suggested he would be overwhelmed by the job. He's grown on me quite a bit since then. I think he's a fine manager who is still improving. More importantly, he's the right man for a very difficult job. I've competed in sports my whole life, and he's the type of manager for whom I would love to have played. I guess it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he will almost undoubtedly be overlooked as manager of the year, when he is so often taken for granted by the fans of his own team.