As the Mets have staggered toward the regular-season finish line, manager Willie Randolph’s stoic demeanor has been taking a beating: He needs to scream at his players. He needs to kick over the post-game buffet. He needs to get thrown out of a game to incite a rally. He needs to do something, anything, to kick-start some action. But Randolph played for legendarily feisty manager Billy Martin, and he knows better than anyone that those days are long gone. All he (or fans) can do now is try to figure out what’s wrong.
Randolph could point the finger at baseball’s campaign to create more competitive mediocrity — ten teams are contending for the six undecided playoff spots — or at a long list of underperforming stars (Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes). But a temper tantrum would not only be out of character, it would stoke the already hysterical media and fans into the kind of frenzy that could sink the team.
Besides, if the Mets don’t at least make it to the World Series, the blame will shift. For three years, general manager Omar Minaya has enjoyed a New York sports sainthood second only to Derek Jeter’s. Much of it is deserved: He’s quickly returned the team to on-field respectability and made it a model of off-field multicultural enlightenment. Yet the Mets’ weaknesses are a direct reflection of Minaya’s instincts (a preference for veterans who are now physically breaking down) and the moves he made during the winter. Minaya bought two bubbles from last season — Guillermo Mota’s steroid-aided work out of the bullpen and aged second-baseman Jose Valentin’s last-gasp hitting spree — and has had to scramble when they burst this year. But the move he didn’t make has proven the most costly.
The Mets’ greatest need in the off-season was reliable starting pitching, and the sports pages were fixated on the team’s pursuit of free-agent lefty Barry Zito. Minaya and the Mets’ ownership, however, coveted Daisuke Matsuzaka — just not as highly as the Red Sox, who blew away the Mets’ bid by $12 million. The Mets had the budget to buy Matsuzaka with a bold offer. Whether their failure was one of imagination or of business strategy, Minaya isn’t saying. And Matsuzaka has sputtered down the stretch. But at least he’s still on the mound, unlike El Duque.
The Mets may have started to turn things around with last night’s 8-3 win over Washington. The playoffs are a test of who’s hot at the right time, not who’s the best team. If the Mets come up short in October, however, it will be Minaya’s turn to fall off the pedestal.—Chris Smith