PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – As Terry Collins tells it, wait long enough and work hard enough and leave bitterness behind, and that apparition of an opportunity, the one that cruelly vanished into the ether so long ago, suddenly can reappear. This time it's concrete, cemented with a handshake, a contract and a clubhouse to call his own.
As Paul DePodesta tells it, right place-right time can happen more than once, and while rectifying a wrong shouldn’t be forced, it’s gratifying to circle back and help a loyal organization man such as Collins land a job he was on the cusp of getting five years earlier.
Collins is the New York Mets manager for the same reasons he was DePodesta’s choice to become the Los Angeles Dodgers manager after the 2005 season: He knows the franchise’s players and coaches from rookie ball through the big leagues; he has a burning passion for teaching and winning; he is open-minded to cutting-edge statistical analysis and considers varied opinions before making decisions.
Furthermore, Collins’ lengthy tenure working with minor leaguers had mellowed him and boosted his confidence. No longer would he be the impatient, insecure taskmaster he was as manager of the Astros and Angels in the 1990s. He was sure of it.
DePodesta conveyed all that to his boss, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, a few months ago, right about the time the front office was finishing up the first round of interviews with managerial candidates. Since he and top lieutenants DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi were new to the organization, Alderson already liked the idea of hiring somebody with a Mets uniform hanging in his locker. Collins was offered the job.
“I think the world of him and I’m happy to work with him again,” DePodesta said. “He’s very deserving. I’m confident he makes us better.”
Nobody was more surprised than Collins, who’d all but given up on the notion he’d be a big league manager again and at age 61 was content as the Mets minor league field coordinator. He was busy at the team’s instructional complex in the Dominican Republic and hadn’t considered that DePodesta might go to bat for him.
“An element of a championship organization is consistency over time,” said DePodesta, whose title is vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “I always prefer to hire from within. Not only does it mean a lot to the people there, it adds an element of stability. There is a learning curve when you get to any organization, not only getting to know personnel but really get an understanding of the culture. To the extent you can speed that up, you are better off.”
His rationale was the same after the 2005 season when Collins was his choice to replace Jim Tracy as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, like the Mets a dysfunctional, underachieving big-market franchise.
DePodesta was the general manager, a brilliant young disciple of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, bruised by the “Moneyball” stereotype and short on allies. Collins was the farm director, several years removed from the heartache of watching a clubhouse implode as manager of the Angels and in charge of shepherding a coveted crop of prospects that included Matt Kemp(notes), Andre Ethier(notes), James Loney(notes), Russell Martin(notes), Jonathan Broxton(notes), Chad Billingsley(notes) and others through the upper levels of the farm system and into Dodger Stadium.
The entire baseball operations department would be unified, DePodesta thought. He’d hire Collins, who unlike Tracy was receptive to the reams of stats the front office produced. DePodesta put together a slate of no-name managerial candidates, leading observers to deduce the process was rigged to make Collins the clear frontrunner.
One of those observers was Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who wasn’t sure what he wanted. Even though top team executives had determined DePodesta would be given more time to right the ship, McCourt began his own parallel managerial search, and prominent names such as Lou Piniella, Jim Fregosi and Bobby Valentine were bandied about. Next came an infatuation with “Dodger legends,” and suddenly Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson were in the mix.
DePodesta probably should have known what was coming, although he insists he didn’t. During the week of the Dodgers’ organizational meetings in Los Angeles, McCourt repeatedly canceled interviews with Collins, supposedly the last step before the hire. Meanwhile, DePodesta wasn’t invited to a dinner McCourt had with Hershiser. A couple days later DePodesta was fired. McCourt hadn’t even told his wife, Jamie, the team’s CEO.
McCourt wanted a manager with more cache than Collins. And he couldn’t very well reject Collins without firing his advocate, DePodesta. As it turned out, the legends approach didn’t pan out and McCourt, scrambling, hired Ned Colletti from the rival San Francisco Giants to replace DePodesta. Colletti, who has done an admirable job under the franchise’s roiling circumstances, hired as manager Grady Little, a respected baseball lifer who like Collins had never played in the big leagues and whose last job had ended in disaster. McCourt didn’t get his big-name manager for two more years, when he hired Joe Torre.
Collins stayed on as Dodgers farm director for another year before becoming manager of the Orix Buffaloes in the Japanese league. “I loved those kids with the Dodgers,” he said. “I had a great, great staff and I thought I should stay.”
The Mets made him field coordinator in 2009 and that’s where it stood. Not even Collins knew he was preparing for another shot as manager. But prepared he feels.
“I feel better about the job now,” he said. “My first time, I had something to prove. I was a minor league guy with no name, and had done all the winter ball stuff, all the instructional leagues, but never got to the big leagues. And I said, ‘I’m going to prove to people I belong here,’ and I took it way too serious. You’ve got to take it serious, but I was way too wound up in, ‘I got to win, I got to win, I got to win.’–”
He wasn’t a failure, not at first. His three seasons with the Astros each ended in a second-place finish, as did his first two seasons with the Angels. He hadn’t been to the playoffs but hadn’t had a losing record, either. Then came 1999 when a rash of injuries gutted the Angels’ lineup, then players went to management asking that Collins not have his contract renewed, then players turned on one another, then they whined about Collins to the media. Finally, Collins resigned.
The memory still smarts, and Collins remembers every detail.
“The clubhouse got out of control with some issues, and by the way, it wasn’t a mutiny,” he said. “There was a mutiny of players against players, if you want to be bluntly honest. There were certain guys who didn’t like me, but that’s in every clubhouse.”
How he reacts to Mets veterans could determine whether he succeeds. He’ll be fine during ballgames. Collins has an enviable ability to stay in the moment and react quickly. It’s the other 21 hours a day that could grate on him.
“I took for granted that everybody loved the game like I did,” he said, referring to his stints with the Astros and Angels. “And that’s not necessarily the case. When I saw that, I had problems.”
His enthusiasm hasn’t waned. He’s the first guy in the clubhouse, and he gets fired up when he looks at the roster taped to the wall of his office. The Mets finished fourth in the NL East the last two seasons, and that won’t be acceptable to Collins. He’s set his sights on amazin’.
“If we are healthy, there is no reason we can’t compete, no reason for it,” he said. “Two years ago these guys were picked to win with almost the same lineup. Carlos Delgado(notes) is gone but Ike Davis(notes) is a good player. Jason Bay(notes) is a big addition. R.A. Dickey(notes) is a great find. We have one of the premier closers in baseball. Why can’t we win? Why can’t we compete? We should.”
He relishes input from Alderson, from scouts, from stat analysts, and, of course, from DePodesta. “The support here is fantastic,” he said. “The more information the better.”
Much could be beyond his control. The Mets’ missteps and misfortune range from owners allegedly engaged in financial shenanigans to thieving, steroid-dealing clubhouse attendants to an injury-riddled roster swollen with prima donnas. Media pressure in New York is intense.
Collins’ newfound patience will be tested. He knows that. And it helps knowing he has an unwavering ally in the front office. Paul DePodesta remembered what Terry Collins went through in 2005. To the delight of both, right place-right time can happen more than once.