So in the dead of night, after beating one of Major League Baseball’s best teams, 3,000 miles from home, the Mets finally, clumsily, fired Willie Randolph, their manager. But running the team was never really Randolph’s purpose anyway. Yes, he decided when to change pitchers during the games and when to bunt. But Randolph was hired four years ago not so much to be the manager as to be a symbol.
No, Randolph wasn’t hired because he’s black. He was hired because he’s black, and because he’s from Brooklyn, and because he’d spent most of his professional life with the Yankees. The Mets, who are regarded as the more enlightened and humane of the city’s two big-league teams, were enhancing that image by hiring a man who’d always been the scrappy, dignified underdog. During his playing days Randolph was overshadowed by Technicolor teammates like Reggie Jackson, and later he was a nearly invisible assistant coach to saint Joe Torre, rejected for a half-dozen managerial openings.
Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon hired Randolph for his connection to their own Brooklyn roots, to show their own progressivism, and to show the Mets are smarter than the Yankees — not because of any deep belief in Randolph’s genius at picking pinch hitters. General manager Omar Minaya was supposed to be the brains of the operation, delivering gifted players; Minaya, like many general managers, merely hoped the guy filling out the lineup card didn’t screw things up. And for three seasons, they all got the story they wanted, with the Mets winning far more than they lost and fielding two of the most exciting young players in baseball.
But last September, the narrative changed. The Mets blew their division lead and a chance to make the playoffs. Randolph couldn’t stop the downward spiral; Torre, Tony LaRussa, John McGraw, or any other certified managerial wizard would have been just as helpless. But the on-field moves didn’t really matter, nor did the fact that Minaya’s roster has proven too old, thin, and expensive. Randolph had become a symbol of something else: epic collapse. And that, not any deficiency of competence, is what cost him his job early this morning. —Chris Smith