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Best Met New York 2009 -

In bad seasons, Mets fans like to pick an underachieving player and ride him mercilessly, but the team's lineup suffered so brutally from injuries this year that it was hard to find anyone to ride. So a cry went up to fire sophomore manager Jerry Manuel. Some said he overworked the bullpen; others said he let weak starters pitch too long. He was accused of overmanaging and going too much with his gut instinct and being just plain stupid: His odd decision to pinch-hit Omir Santos for Ramón Castro in an April game against the Marlins—because Santos "has a shorter swing"—was endlessly revived as deathless proof of Manuel's incompetence. As Manuel is called "Gangsta" and once memorably compared Mets fans to fertilizer, you expect him to bristle, at least, at this treatment, yet he bore it with dignity and grace: As his team went into free fall, he didn't adopt the bizarrely sunny manner of Willie "new season" Randolph or the strangled anguish of Bobby "It's killing my pets" Valentine. He instead became philosophical, even stoical. (He had been described as philosophical before, but now he was acting like a philosopher.) When things went badly, he called it a "team funk," and avoided assigning blame. When Omar Minaya and Tony Bernazard blew up, he demurred: "I don't really have enough time to entertain all these things. My job of managing 25 men keeps me busy enough." His discursive post-game analyses became like Zen riddles: Interviewed on a disappointing Livan Hernández performance, he explained, "Livan pitches off the plate for the most part . . . that was probably the reason for a lot of the walks—still trying to get hitters to kinda come in or go outside of the zone, and they weren't doing it." He also suggested using Hernández as an infielder. This isn't the sort of thing that shuts up angry fans, but it seemed to have a calming effect on the players. When wins came, they were lively affairs; dispiriting blown leads gave way to comebacks. It may be that after years as sweatily presumptive contenders, Manuel's modesty reminded everyone that the Mets were just another team, and baseball was just another game, and for the first time in years, it took enough pressure off them that they could enjoy themselves on the field. Maybe that will make the Mets' annual "rebuilding" less desperate and more productive. If so, it will have been Manuel who rid the Mets of the collar that has been choking them.—Roy Edroso

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