Talking Strategy with Mets' Manager Jerry Manuel
This needs to be said one more time: Willie Randolph was shafted. I don't mean the way he was fired, on California time. I mean that he was made the scapegoat for the sins of bad judgment by Mets management. Randolph was the face of the Mets' historic September collapse, and that's why he had to go. It was all about faces.
Jerry Manuel's face reminds me of Morgan Freeman's, which is why I'm hesitant to ask him a question he might regard as stupid. Any manager who would joke about knifing one of his own players might not hesitate to turn on a writer. After all, Manuel was suspended for five games and fined $5,000 in 2000 for participating in a brawl—the only manager so far this century to receive so stiff a penalty.
But let's get this out of the way first: Regardless of how Willie was treated, Jerry Manuel is at least as qualified to manage the Mets. In fact, he was better qualified before Randolph got the job. As far back as 1990, managing Montreal's Double-A farm team, the Jacksonville Expos, he was named the league's Manager of the Year. And in 2000, he was voted Manager of the Year at the major-league level when he took the Chicago White Sox to 95 wins and a first-place finish in the AL Central.
There were rumors that Randolph was upset at Manuel's having stabbed him in the back—those were Willie's words—by negotiating with Mets management just before the end, but the truth is that all teams want coaches as experienced and capable as Manuel. When the manager's in trouble, they're going to look to those coaches for at least interim replacements. It's the way baseball works.
Manuel is now managing for his seventh season after spending five years as a player. In truth, his big-league playing experience amounts to about a fifth of one big-league season—just 127 at-bats and three home runs, during which time he went as unnoticed as a Libertarian presidential candidate. He played mostly with Detroit and Montreal, and was with San Diego just long enough to have a cup of coffee—microwaved.
"I think I learned more about baseball as a player watching from the bench than I ever learned as a minor-league manager," he says. "Like Yogi, I learned a lot just by watching."
Jerry Manuel knows the drill for big-league managers, which is why he has said practically nothing about wanting to stay on as the Mets' manager next year. He knows that will be determined by how well the Mets do down the stretch. They have played slightly better under Manuel, but we won't know if there's real improvement until the last four weeks of the season. The Mets were a game below .500 when Randolph was fired and have been a handful of games over .500 under Manuel. The primary difference has been in the hitting: David Wright is batting about 20 points better than he was under Randolph; Jose Reyes (the one whom Manuel joked about pulling a knife on) has hit about 30 points better; and Carlos Beltran is once again hitting with runners on base. (Under Randolph, Beltran was just two for his last 33 with runners on second and third, a little-observed fact that probably had as much to do with Willie's demise as anything.)
Of course, hitting is the one thing managers can't control, so it's difficult to say exactly what, if anything, Manuel is doing better. Mets fans like Eric Simon of Amazin Avenue.com have put his performance under a microscope and found "little difference between Manuel's and Randolph's managing styles."
"From a tactical standpoint," Simon tells me, "Manuel seems more inclined to slot younger, inexperienced players into prominent roles." But that's about it. "Other than that, neither manager is particularly imaginative, and both rely heavily on 'The Book.' "
Manuel's beach reading, though, is a bit more sophisticated than Randolph's: Tolstoy, for instance—or so I heard from a Mets PR person. When I finally got to ask him my one big question, I wanted to know if he had enjoyed the new translation of Anna Karenina. He paused, looked at me like Morgan Freeman's God looking at Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, and calmly replied: "His philosophical writings. I enjoy reading Tolstoy on the subject of nonviolence." He'd come to Tolstoy via Gandhi, and to Gandhi by way of Martin Luther King. Maybe that stuff about pulling knives was a joke after all. Maybe.
Wherever he's coming from, Manuel has already, in a few short weeks, become the Mets' most quotable manager since Yogi Berra. Actually, as an aphorist, his style more closely resembles that of Phil Jackson. This past February, as the Mets' bench coach, Manuel brushed off queries about a questionable bunting strategy in an exhibition game as "a cloud with no rain." And in June, after fans booed a relief performance by Aaron Heilman, he likened the boos to fertilizer. "Fertilizer is a good thing," he told a room full of wide-eyed beat writers. "It's very, very fertile ground for growth in Shea Stadium. It's fertile ground for a team's growth and development."
If that's the case, there's no more fertile ground for growth and development than the Mets' bullpen. The relief corps' ERA is around 6.60, the highest in the majors since the All-Star break. And the bullpen's collapse, of course, is precisely what sunk the team last September. Has he found any alternative, I asked, for the recent strategy of "bullpen by committee"? "There is no committee," he quietly informed me. "I am the committee, I make the decisions, and I don't use a Ouija Board. I base my decisions on who is sharp at the particular time."
So what's your best bet right now? I wanted to know. "Patience," he said without a blink.
Which may be a wonderful quality in a manager, but it's in short supply right now with Mets fans. If Jerry Manuel doesn't produce better numbers soon, Mets fans will be happily supplying him with all the fertilizer he can handle.
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