ANAHEIM, Calif. – Well after closing time in New York, hours after the Mets won for the third time in four games, just as he was beginning to believe-hope-pray his club was finally starting to get it right late Monday night, Willie Randolph was told to pack his bags and go.
Presumably, the Mets allowed Randolph to stay one more night in the customary manager's suite at the team hotel in Costa Mesa. Presumably.
And that's how it ends for Randolph.
With three wins in four games, and an empty clubhouse, while his hometown slept. In New York, he'll always be a terrific Yankee. In New York, he'll always be a game from the 2006 World Series, a win or two from the 2007 playoffs, a local guy who very, very nearly made good twice.
Jerry Manuel will write the lineup for Tuesday night's game. Dan Warthen, and not Rick Peterson, will give the ball to Johan Santana.
Randolph, who had waited so long to lead a ballclub and got Job 1(A), won 302 games in three seasons plus whatever this debacle counts as, which was 2½ months of limited support from his superiors and uninspired play from the men he tried so hard to protect.
In what were his final hours as manager of the Mets, Randolph sat in a strange dugout in a far-away city and mused about the windstorm back home, the one that would drive him – and parts of his coaching staff – out of their jobs.
Omar Minaya was chasing the team charter to the West Coast on a flight of his own, a highly unusual itinerary for a general manager who doesn't often partake in road trips, and the assumption was he wasn't coming for the Pacific breezes. The assumption was he was coming for the manager. He was. The whole thing was a sigh and a phone call from happening, no matter that the Mets had actually scored some runs, that they'd actually gotten a decent game out of Mike Pelfrey, that Billy Wagner had actually gotten the last three outs.
Minaya hadn't lately shown a real conviction about Randolph either way. In fact, he'd acted like a guy who knows what he should do but hadn't the stomach for it. By Monday night, he'd mustered the courage and the plan to hand the club to Manuel.
Randolph had longed for the baseball again anyway, and it was apparent it would never again be about baseball for him and New York's second team. He was weary of the hourly updates, of the hourly dissections of his work, of the hourly referendums on his ability to run a big-league ballclub. It's a funny business, sports. Randolph had his job because Art Howe didn't survive the same scrutiny. Someday it'll get Manuel, too. Again.
"What I'm concerned about is how we can get this thing going, period," Randolph said. "That's what it's all about. It's unfortunate. That's the way the game should be."
Then, almost under his breath, he added, "Really kind of sad."
What's worse, far worse, is how long the process had carried on. This is the man Minaya hired in November 2004, two months after he himself was hired. This is the man who took the Mets to the brink of the World Series in 2006. And, ahem, the man who should have taken the Mets to that World Series, and didn't. And the man who stood on those top steps last September and watched his credibility leak away. And the man who watched these Mets sink into fourth place over the first 2½ months.
Randolph's status had been a moving target and Minaya has treated it as such, raising and lowering his sights like a hunter with a fogged scope. Presumably, the owners played a part as well. It's been clumsy, all of it, and entirely beneath Randolph and Minaya. But such is life in the big city, even when you're a continent away from the big city.
"It's always there," Randolph said. "It's always around. You can't escape it."
Three weeks ago, Randolph was dragged into the owners' office, purportedly to answer for his misguided observations about – of all things – the club-run television network. It's fair to assume, I think, the meeting would not have been called had the Mets been pulling away from the Philadelphia Phillies at that point. Whatever part of the clubhouse Randolph still held might have slipped away that day.
The season hadn't gotten much better. Moises Alou came off the disabled list and then returned to it. Pedro Martinez, however, came off, stayed off and has pitched well. Then, in the course of five days, Randolph summoned his closer three times and Wagner blew all three saves. Wagner made a raggedy appearance Monday but survived some loud outs. The Mets have just been average; nothing great, nothing terrible. So, they lose about as often as they win, which isn't near good enough.
Ultimately, it appears, Minaya simply ran out of better ideas.
There will be speculation that New York became too much for the man from Brooklyn, but it didn't.
They'll say he lacked the depth of personality to hold a clubhouse together. But they'll be wrong.
What might have become too much for Randolph were the overrated players and hearts on an imperfect roster. What he lacked was the willingness to say so, because that would have been disloyal to his ownership, to his general manager, to his players.
And now it's a complete mess, though now it's Manuel's mess and not Randolph's. Those who know Manuel will say he is a very bright baseball man, that he's firm in the clubhouse without being too controlling, that he'll be a better communicator than Randolph. Those who know the Mets will say it just wasn't working for Randolph anymore.
As of late Monday night, he had still been in uniform, still in control, just a game under .500 after a win a continent away from all the bluster. He was an hour away from making it through another day, and then didn't make it through the next. Maybe he knew what awaited him at the team hotel. Maybe by then it didn't matter. Maybe it was time to go out with one last handshake.
"A win anywhere is good now," he said. "Doesn't matter where it is."
That's how it ended for Willie Randolph. And how it started for Omar Minaya.