Collins has his hands full in New York

BY Bob Klapisch • November 21, 2010

You can bet the entire Met fan base will be locked and loaded for Terry Collins' first press conference on Tuesday, where he and GM Sandy Alderson will have a lot of explaining to do.

The GM, in particular, must articulate how — and more importantly, why — he picked a journeyman manager like Collins after such a long search, that ran through so many candidates and required not just one round of interviews, but two.

Couldn't the Mets have behaved like the Pirates, who after sensing Clint Hurdle was their man, practically hired him on the spot? The Mets let Hurdle slip through their grasp even though organizational sources say he “blew away the field” during his initial meeting with Alderson two weeks ago.

Alderson wasn't ready to move, however, and ended up with Collins, an uninspiring choice, not to mention an unpopular one. Mets ticket holders have largely welcomed Alderson since he replaced Omar Minaya, but his regime will come under closer scrutiny now that the 2011 team's officially been entrusted to a manager who, seemingly, doesn't fit.

While it's true Collins impressed the Mets in the last two years as their minor league field coordinator, he's nevertheless dogged by a troubled past. He lost the clubhouse in both Houston and Anaheim in the '90s, quitting on the Angels in the middle of a player revolt with 29 games remaining in the 1999 season.

Critics said Collins was smart, but too intense, too volatile — able to teach, but too sensitive to criticism. When he quit again in Japan, this time on the Orix Buffaloes in 2007, Collins all but retired from managing, saying he'd lost his passion for it.

So, why is it believable that Collins will succeed in New York? That's just one of the questions both he and Alderson will have to answer at Citi Field. The new manager will need to outline how he'll end the long losing streak the Mets have suffered in the manager's office in the last decade — from Art Howe's passivity to Willie Randolph's insecurity to Jerry Manuel's outright cluelessness.

Alderson will be asked to explain why he passed over the intellectual upgrade Bob Melvin could've offered. Or why Wally Backman, one of the four finalists, was told a “lack of experience” doomed him.

If so, why was Backman even asked to return for a second interview? The former Met had his hopes raised after what he called an “awesome” first meeting with Alderson. He thought he'd hit all the right notes in his second interview in Orlando last week during the owners meetings.

“Communication, motivation….all of it,” Backman said, who directly addressed why not having managed a major league team shouldn't have counted against him.

Not when the Mets themselves took a chance on Davey Johnson in 1984 without a day's work in the majors.

“And look how that turned out,” Backman said. He felt that point resonated with Alderson, at least until 5 p.m. on Friday when his phone rang. It was the GM calling with bad news: Collins had won the managerial sweepstakes, although the Mets were offering Backman a chance to remain in the organization, managing in the minors.

Backman said he'd, “have to think things over for a few days” before deciding. In the meantime, Collins will begin preparing for his new life on the biggest stage he's ever known.

He'll be the face of the Mets in what's expected to be a down year — the club has virtually no fresh money to spend in upgrading its roster this winter. Starting the season without Johan Santana, the Mets could be overwhelmed by the Phillies and Braves in just a month or two.

It'll be up to Collins to convince fans there are better times ahead. But he probably has no real sense of how deep the cynicism runs in Flushing, how the walls start closing in “the moment you're five games under .500” said one member of the organization.

Can Collins absorb the slings and arrows of the tabloid headlines, the city-wide impatience fed by talk radio? Maybe not, said one baseball person who's known Collins for many years. He said, “think of (NFL Giants coach) Tom Coughlin with a bad team and you have Terry Collins.”

Collins will have to prove he can win over not just the fans, but more importantly, make inroads in his clubhouse. He'll need to be forceful without being negative in a room that's been spiraling downward for three summers.

The Mets have already heard every failed sales pitch — from Howe's nice-guy approach to Randolph's Yankee pedigree to Manuel's urban-cool. None of them paid a dividend.

Collins doesn't need any other gimmick than to prove he's his own man, and not just Alderson's proxy. That's no small task, considering ownership's looking for a way to get out from under Francisco Rodriguez's vesting option for 2012.

Rodriguez only needs to finish 55 games this summer in order for his $17.5 million option to kick in. What better way to keep K-Rod under that threshold than having the new, hand-picked manager pretend he's grooming Bobby Parnell to someday close for the Mets.

Collins will be caught in the middle of this corporate struggle. Ownership wants to make K-Rod disappear, while his teammates want to know the manager's only agenda is to win as many games as possible.

That's just one of the wars Collins is about to wage. It all starts on Tuesday, when Collins gives his first state of the team address, and — you can make book on this — everyone will be taking notes.

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