Commentary

Meet the Mets' mystery manager

They're still playing well under the surprisingly low-key leadership of Terry Collins

Originally Published: June 27, 2012
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Terry Collins will have to succeed in New York before he can fail in New York. It's late and he's tired and he just lost to the Yankees, but his expression is incisive, as keen as a blade. Sharp eyes in a sharp face, he looks straight at you when he answers your questions.

Terry Collins is the manager of the New York Mets.

And there's been a sense this season of optimism and high new purpose out at Willets Point, of things going right and of bright days ahead. This despite stars lost to free agency, and nagging injuries to the stars left behind, and intermittent hitting and inconstant relieving. The Mets aren't bad. They might even be good. For which Terry Collins, not yet famous in New York City, deserves much of the credit.

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AP Photo/Chris O'MearaSo far, at least, Terry Collins has managed to stay above the fray and below the glare of the New York pressure.

Happy clubhouses are all alike; every unhappy clubhouse is unhappy in its own way. The 2012 Mets will tell you the 2012 Mets are loose and focused, relaxed and competitive, and all pointing in the same direction. A happy clubhouse.

Until the Mets hired him in November 2010, Mr. Collins hadn't managed in the big leagues since 1999. The knock on him all those years ago was his intensity, described even by friends as "seething." He bore down so hard and so hot that the Angels staged a clubhouse mutiny and Collins resigned with a month left to play in '99. Before that, it was the unhappy Astros. But people change. As is the case with prophets set loose to wander the wilderness -- or the Nippon Professional Baseball League -- letting go of ambition and fear and anger and appetite is the only way to get to what matters. Success often arrives only after the desire for success is erased. As it is with a knuckleball, the hardest part is learning how to let go.

Thus the Mets and Terry Collins are a perfect wedding of timing, necessity, opportunity and disposition.

"The team needed more intensity," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson says, "and Terry's learned to mitigate it, to harness it. It's laudable that he's learned from past mistakes."

Collins knew Mets management and the Mets' player development system, and had a strong advocate in vice president of player development Paul DePodesta, with whom he'd worked for the Dodgers.

"I think his energy and his positivity -- to go along with his experience and knowledge base -- makes him a really attractive candidate," DePodesta says today. "It's an enormous job. I think people underestimate how much goes into these jobs and just how all-consuming they can be."

Still, it was possible on the night of his hiring to find message board posts slugged: "Terry Collins, Destroyer of Worlds."

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AP Photo/Reed SaxonIn early September of 1999, a player revolt forced Collins' resignation as the Angels' manager.

So Terry Collins has changed. Or, if he hasn't, maybe in New York the immense weight of the fans and the tabloids and the expectations bearing down match what he feels in his head and in his heart, and the external pressure will at last equal the internal pressure, and he'll find balance and happiness and success.

Either way, Alderson understood as a practical matter that he had to let ticket buyers know the Mets are as serious about winning as the fans are. Matching ardor to ardor wasn't always the case in Flushing. "We needed to change the perception of the team," he says.

And so they have.

The Mets are riding a wave of fresh hope and new attitude, despite a win-loss record that looks a lot like those of the half-dozen years just passed. As of the morning of June 27, the Mets are 39-36 and in third place in the National League East.

On the same date in 2011, Collins' first season with the Mets, they were 39-39 and in fourth place. They finished the season 77-85, in fourth place.

In 2010: 43-32, second place; finished 79-83, fourth place.

In 2009: 37-36, second place; finished 70-92, fourth place.

In 2008: 39-39, third place; finished 89-73, second place.

In 2007: 43-33, first place; finished 88-74, second place.

In 2006: 47-29, first place; finished 97-65, first place.

Much of this optimism untethered to results can be accounted to R.A. Dickey and his year of magical knuckleballing. When R.A. Dickey is right, when Dickey pitches well, Terry Collins looks like a genius. Any manager would. More than 40 innings without an earned run; first pitcher to throw consecutive one-hitters since Dave Stieb in 1988; first NL pitcher to do it since 1944. The first pitcher since 1900 with back-to-back, complete-game one-hitters with more than 10 strikeouts, and the first in history with five straight starts of no earned runs and eight-plus strikeouts. For as long as that magic holds, "Why Terry Collins?" is a question no one is going to ask.

Collins has also juggled and patched together an unstable lineup of short-timers with good results. Less cynically, fans seem to sense Collins' friendly energy and his honesty and his love of the game. He bounds from the dugout like a terrier.

Loving the Mets is the patient work of a long lifetime, but patience is more than waiting. Patience is knowing what you're waiting for. Collins and Alderson understand that.

"We're trying to build something long term and sustainable here," DePodesta says.

They're also trying to mend team finances and repair an ownership image problem. They need highlights and signature moments such as Johan Santana's no-hitter and Dickey's one-hitters and Ike Davis' grand slam. They need wins and a recognizable cast of lovable grinders and more wins and a pennant.

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AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekR.A. Dickey's knuckleball has been one big reason for the Mets' success, but don't underestimate Collins' contributions.

And when he's ready, they'll need Terry Collins to become a more public figure. He's a charming, smart, funny, voluble man who isn't doing one-on-one interviews for pieces like this yet, as is his right, and the team's. But to find out if and how he's changed might go a long way to cementing his rapport with Mets fans. Like Dickey, he's going good and therefore reluctant to reveal anything about how the trick works. And the only thing more superstitious than a ballplayer is his manager.

The Mets are the second-best baseball team in their own hometown and have been since the moment of their founding. In 1962, the year the Mets were born from the ghosts of the Dodgers and the Giants, the Yankees won their 20th World Series. In the 50 years since, the Yankees have won seven more. The Mets have won two. All things equal and those trends holding, it will take the Mets another 625 years to catch up -- if the Yankees never win another championship.

In this diamond anniversary season of the New York Mets, visiting managers come and go in every shape and size and state of mind. The Phillies' Charlie Manuel, as cheerful and pink-cheeked as Father Christmas; Mike Matheny of the Cards, young and sleek as a Hollywood leading man; Buck Showalter of Baltimore, wearing the look of an amused contract killer; Terry Francona, retired, tanned as an Islamorada fishing guide; Joe Girardi of the Yankees, so pale and gaunt he looks carved from the bones of other managers.

To a man, they share a central thought: A manager's job is to create an environment in which his players can thrive.

"A fan can make out a lineup card or figure out a pitching change," Showalter says. "That's only part of it. What you're trying to do here is to create your own reality."

The potential metaphysics of which are perhaps simpler than they sound.

"Winning fixes everything," says Mets third baseman David Wright, just before extending his hitting streak to 14 games.

This is Sunday at Citi Field.

Watching the ground crew paint fresh baselines, then water and smooth the mound by hand like clay on a potter's wheel, is a tutorial on the importance of what's at stake here tonight.

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Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesThe old intensity still shines through every now and then. Just ask umpire Larry Vanover.

On the last afternoon of the interleague homestand, the Mets' clubhouse is a low-key rave, a pool party, music pouring out of Justin Turner's locker and 40 reporters telling their front page chicken stories and the players laughing and loose and ready. Down the hall, the Yankees' clubhouse is your boss' last presentation on declining quarterly sales. No laughs and all business, a roomful of people looking politely down at their shoes.

Focus is where you find it. That's "The Yankee Way." Corporate. Self-serious. Winners going back a thousand years. "The Met Way" is still a project in development.

Attendance sets a new Citi Field record: 42,364. Two great pitchers, Dickey and Sabathia, and two good teams. This is the best of the best of these Subway Series, an interborough rivalry that's never been as close as Mets fans would like to believe it has. In all things but devotion, history favors the Yankees.

Dickey sits Jeter on one pitch. Granderson grounds out and A-Rod fans. Eight pitches to retire the side in the top of the first and the stands roar in the sunset and that's as good as it ever gets. But Robert Allen Dickey does not have his stuff tonight. He does not, as they say, command the knuckleball. It's all in how you let go, and the ball tumbles and spins and hangs and flies, and the rest of the night goes sideways for the Mets and for Dickey, and they lose 6-5.

Nearing midnight, Terry Collins, his expression sharp, arms folded tightly in front of him, answers questions from the media. The reporters are respectful, but they do not treat him like a genius. He takes full responsibility for every move he did or didn't make, for his patchwork bullpen and for the splitter Miguel Batista hung in front of Robinson Cano for the game-winning home run. However the spheres turned tonight, Terry Collins is a man in command of Terry Collins.

The Mets fly out of town in the middle of the night and lose two in a row to the Chicago Cubs. Change everything, change nothing. Let go. Create your own reality.

It is the morning of June 27, 2012. The New York Mets are 39-36.