LOS ANGELES – It's late Monday afternoon and Willie Randolph is sitting in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium trying to explain how September has kind of bled into April and May, or at least deflect the perception that it has, and seven months later you can understand how this could wear on a man.
As patiently as he can, he's running through the day's handful of calamities, starting with Oliver Perez's body language and ending with Carlos Delgado's offensive rhythms, while touching briefly on Carlos Beltran's possible climate preferences and the current mood at Shea Stadium.
An eclectic list, to be sure.
The New York Mets have been OK, but just OK, and Randolph seems to be wearing it on his neck and shoulders, and in eyes left dull from that final Sunday in September.
"In our minds, we moved on," Randolph said. "In spring training, we moved past it. Obviously, the fans haven't moved past it. Believe me, believe me, my team is really solid together as far as how we look at ourselves. I don't think we define who we are by the reaction we get.
"We know where we want to go, where we want to be. We can't get there until September."
At the end of a reasonable week and a half in which they won series against the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks, Randolph and the Mets arrived at Dodger Stadium in the lower third of the National League in runs, home runs, batting and fielding percentage, while lugging poor starts by Delgado, Beltran, Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo. Moises Alou missed all of April, and his return allowed Randolph to push Delgado back to sixth in the batting order, though so far Delgado's rhythms look better than Alou's.
The pitching has been spotty even with Johan Santana, and the Mets don't defend particularly well, and five days ago Billy Wagner, the All-Star closer, called out Oliver Perez, the enigmatic starter, for failing to get out of the second inning in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Perez got knocked around again Monday night, but Wagner would be pleased to see Perez hung in there for six innings, even after being smoked by a line drive in the first.
Randolph is waiting on Pedro Martinez, who was 10 outs into his season when he blew his left hamstring. At the same time, New York waits on Delgado's swing, Reyes' head, Perez's focus, Wagner's filter, Castillo's contract, Beltran's pop and Willie's fire.
"I think we understand," Randolph said, "in this town, that's the way it's going to be."
By "this town," he didn't, of course, mean this town, L.A.
In a hallway just off the clubhouse on the third-base side, a surfboard rests against a concrete wall. It's a long board, meant for easy rides, old guys rule, that sort of thing. A gift from a team sponsor, it belongs to Joe Torre. It might never see the surf, not under Torre's feet anyway, but the symbolism is unavoidable.
Torre was run out of New York about the time the Mets sighed and took Randolph back, and now a tanned Torre has led the resurgent Dodgers to nine wins in 10 games while his former and long-time coach remains half a step ahead of the same hardball demons that chased Torre. He hated how life ended in New York, but Torre is undeniably content here, in a place where the dismay over two decades of mediocrity doesn't rate with an imperfect weekend series against the Boston Red Sox.
"I've enjoyed it," Torre said. "It's baseball. It's a little different feel of baseball than in New York."
Back there, Torre said, and he wouldn't have to tell the city-raised-and-hardened Randolph, "It becomes more than the sports section. Certainly it tests your ability to control the ups and downs."
This is where Torre gets careful. He does not want to suggest the winning is any less important in L.A., which used to know winning, which now must navigate the southbound Golden State Freeway to witness that again. But, damn, somebody sent him a surfboard, for crying out loud.
"Yeah, it's a little more laid back," he said. "In saying that, it doesn't mean you don't have the hunger to win. Right now, baseball is in the sports section. It's a nice change."
It is one thing to show up on the back pages, apparently. Quite another to live on the front pages. So far, Torre has been tested with one enduring issue, and that is his four-way outfield, which Andruw Jones is playing his way out of anyway. The players, you see, usually make these decisions for the manager, if the manager is given enough time.
So, Randolph waits on his guys to hit, and his middle relievers to get outs, and his starters to go deeper into games.
Meantime, the Mets aren't anything but just OK, and September always feels like yesterday.
"That's going to be in people's memories until you change it," Torre said. "There's nothing you can say that's going to change what happened. It's a matter of making that a distant memory and giving them something to enjoy. For the manager, it's a little different. All of a sudden, you're responsible for more than just yourself. So, it's a little overpowering."
- Willie Randolph